How to become a great meeting and workshop facilitator
Facilitation asks to balance the goals of the meeting, the social dynamics of the team, and all while creating an environment that is a participation democracy where everyone is able to be heard. It is a rare skill, mainly because few companies take the time to teach the skills and often because feel you have to be an extrovert to be good at it (which isn’t true). In this episode, we will look at what it takes to be a great facilitator, what you shouldn’t do, the actions and behaviors you will need, and share a playbook for creating the best meetings and workshops.
One of the skills that I have come to appreciate over the years and think is really undervalued is someone who is a great facilitator. It is critical to so much of what we do as creatives in meetings, workshops, brainstorms, interviews, and more. Yet I have found that it is just one more thing that companies do not teach and not enough people know. Too many people think you have to be an extrovert or possess some special social skills to be a good facilitator but that isn’t true.
So like the intent of so many other episodes of this, let’s fix that problem. In this episode, we will look at what it takes to be a great facilitator, what you shouldn’t do, the actions and behaviors you will need, and share a playbook to creating the best meetings and workshops.
What makes a great facilitator?
Like with all our shows, let’s start with the basics and look at what makes a great facilitator? Facilitation is all about helping a group do efficient, meaningful work and helping to uncover their best potential.
While it can feel complicated, it really just boils down to two simple things:
• Make sure everyone in the room is heard
• Make sure there’s an actionable outcome every time people come together.
How do you know if it is something you would be good at? Some things that are good signs are:
• You get excited when there’s a problem to be solved
• You love to see people working together
• You like to help other people shine
• You notice other people and how they behave
• You don’t like when ego gets in the way of collaboration
• You like to be a helpful guide, rather than the hero in the spotlight
Your role isn’t
I think this is also one of those times when it would be a good idea to start with what facilitation isn’t, as I think some people have the wrong idea about how to do it well.
IT ISN’T coming up with the best solution
A good facilitator’s goal is to encourage participants to think productively, not solve the team’s challenge for them.
Your goal is to focus on guiding the team and NOT trying to be the person in the room with the best, brightest, most innovative ideas.
IT ISN’T being a subject matter expert
You don’t need to be an expert in every industry to facilitate a good workshop. Once you make the mindset shift from being the hero to being the guide, you’ll realize your role as a facilitator is not to solve the team’s challenges.
You definitely need subject matter experts in the room, it doesn’t mean you as a facilitator should take on this role. The expertise should come from the group, not from the facilitator.
As a facilitator, you just need to know how group dynamics work, the best decision-making tools, and how to steer the group to their best results.
ISN’T needing to be an extrovert
This myth is engraved deep in the minds of many because it’s the one that seems to make a lot of logical sense. You will be speaking in front of groups of people, so shouldn’t you be extroverted?
In fact, if you rely purely on your outgoing personality to wing it through the workshop, you likely won’t deliver good outcomes.
Some of the best facilitators are introverts and this hasn’t stopped them from facilitating successful workshops for some of the world’s biggest companies.
The key to confidently guiding a group is to have a big toolbox of exercises to pull from, to know the core facilitation rules, and to implement them!
Actions and behaviors you will need
Now that we have defined a few key things that great facilitators aren’t – lets looks at how you should approach this.
There is nothing worse than a biased facilitator who drives the discussion to a preplanned (and obvious to all) conclusion. A good facilitator helps the team have great ideas by stay open to the possibilities and works to keep them, and yourself, open minded and not running to one outcome.
Strong facilitation skills.
Facilitation is hard because you have to navigate all types of social dynamics.
A good facilitator has tools and tricks up their sleeve that can stop a circular discussion, help them deal with troublemakers, and make sure their group is engaged and focused.
A sense of timing.
Timing is a key and often overlooked part of having great ideas.
A good facilitator has this sense of timing and knows when a discussion has gone off-topic and needs to be brought to a close or when team members are done with the exercise and ready to move on.
Commitment to collaboration.
Collaboration can be frustrating. And all too often, there’s the temptation for people to take on the teacher’s role and take charge, rather than the role of facilitator and guide. A good facilitator knows that they are the guide, not the hero. They’re in the room to help the team do their best work, not to show off how smart or cool they are. They also take the time to understand the personalities in the room and can create rules for brainstorms like we talked about in episode 18 to help these dynamics.
Be prepared to improvise
Workshops are complicated and people can be unpredictable. It won’t always be smooth sailing, and you, as a facilitator, need to be prepared for that. A good facilitator is able to improvise and if you want to really master the art of facilitation, you gotta get comfortable with changing your workshop plans on the go.
Treat the team’s energy like it’s a finite resource
Energy is a crucial component in facilitation, and it directly influences the outcomes of your workshop. The key here is to treat energy like a delicate finite resource and not try to jam-pack your workshops with as many activities as possible. This might sound counterintuitive, and you might think cramming in as much value as you can will emphasize and highlight all the value you have to deliver as a facilitator, but in reality, the only thing it will do is leave your group drained and depleted at the end of the day. Here’s a rule of thumb you should follow: don’t plan for more than 3-4 hours of focussed activities into your day. That’s about how long an average person can keep focussing on cognitively challenging tasks and delivering their a-game.
Don’t fall prey to information imbalance
Information imbalance occurs when one party knows more information than the other and fails to communicate all the relevant details. So in a workshop setting, this could manifest in you not explaining the exercises clearly enough to your participants, because it’s so obvious to you, you might not even be aware of leaving out important pieces of information. It could also be where people in the workshop may use information as power to make themselves feel more important.
Use communal interactive tools
Traditionally, the facilitator would be in charge of documenting the findings from the workshop. However, the problem with this approach is that the ownership of what’s been said and done during the day will move from the group to the facilitator.
This is a huge problem because it reduces participants commitment and increases the odds of misinterpretation. Instead, use tools like Mural or Miro online white boarding tools so everyone can participate if you are in person or remote.
Its always a good idea to have a robust toolkit of exercises for every occasion from decision-making, problem-solving, or ideation. The more exercises you learn, the more flexible you are, and the better your workshops and meetings will become!
A few of my favorites are:
- Atlassian Team Playbook
- Lightning Decision Jam
- Problem Framer
- Action Board
- 10×10 Brainstorming
- Design Sprint
Before the meeting
We have been doing a lot of talking about what not to do and what to but let’s also spend some time talking about how to actually do it. These are practical things you should do to help yourself as the facilitator and the team to be their best. We will break it down into before, start, middle and end of the workshop or meeting.
Set the scene
The first thing I think about is how do I want people to feel before I even say a word. Do you want people to feel calm, energetic, or relaxed?
I do this by thinking about how I set the scene through the way the room is set up, the lighting, the music, decorations and more.
It is a small thing but it can go a long way if people feel at home, know this isn’t just another meeting or see details that show you are paying attention.
Get the number of people right
Getting the right number of people in meeting or workshop can also be a huge factor in its success. Invite too many people and you run the risk of losing all control over facilitation. Invite too few and the workshop will be lacking the diversity of through and energy you will need. I keep the number of participants to 6-8 people per one facilitator. A CEO once asked me how to have a 300 person brainstorm session and my answer was to have 50 individual brainstorms.
Get the right people in the room
Beyond having the right number you also have to make sure you have the right people in that group of 6-8 people. You have to make sure you have all the different subject matter experts represented so you have all relevant perspectives and ensure that the workshop outcomes can actually get executed. The danger here will be to add people you may not need because of their title like executives or others. Sometimes this has to happen but if it does be sure to have a rule where everyone has to leave their title at the door.
Start of the meeting
Get to know the participants
Whether you’re acting as an external consultant or organizing an in-house workshop, focus on the people. Try to understand who the participants are, what their group dynamic is like, and how you can best match the workshop to their knowledge. The icebreaker is a great way to start to do this.
Run an icebreaker
I do this if everyone has worked together for years or are complete strangers. It builds trust, create some energy and gives you a chance to get to know each other.
I will post some of my favorite ones in the show notes.
Share the agenda and set expectations
After the icebreaker but before kicking off the first exercise, it’s good to go through the agenda.
Also share the purpose and goal of the workshop, so everyone will be able to recognize whether or not their discussions throughout the day will help you achieve the shared goal. It also gives you something you can refer back to so you can keep everyone focused.
Go over the logistics and ground rules
Boring, I know—but you’ll want to take a moment at the beginning of the workshop to set some ground rules and go over the logistics: Where the bathrooms are, what time there’ll be breaks, and what the rules of engagement during the day will be. For ground rules I use my 7 rules for running a brainstorm you can hear all about in episode 18.
Middle of the meeting
Ensure full and equal participation.
Facilitators are the protectors of participation democracy within the group.
You have to do this because you have to make sure that each participant feels comfortable contributing. This doesn’t always happen because you will have people will all communication styles and the louder ones tend to drown out the quieter ones. You do this by creating opportunities and platforms for contributors to generate their own ideas, speak up about their thoughts, and openly discuss their perspectives.
You do this by controlling the ways the teams work through diverge-and-converge technique where people think on their own, then share their thoughts with each other through activities lead by the facilitator.
This puts everyone on equal footing and gives everyone an equal voice.
End of the meeting
Finish on a high
You started on a high with the ice breaker, went through a lot of tough work, and you want to be sure you end on a high since it will be the last thing people remember.
This could be a recap to go over everything you accomplished.
It could be something fun like a team building exercise
But think about how to start and end on a high.
Assess goal completion
Before you break up the workshop, it’s time to take a moment to discuss if you achieved the goal you’d set for the workshops. If the answer is yes, well done and move on to next steps.
And if it’s a no, make sure that you understand why the goal was not reached and put together a clear plan for you will get there. It could be another meeting, adding different people, or other things.
Communicate the next steps
The one last thing that you’ll want to do is to remind everyone what’s expected of them after the workshop.
Make sure that all the participants have a clear understanding of their next steps, and that they know how their tasks play into the bigger picture.
Ask for feedback
Ask for feedback on the workshop before you end the meeting
Ask for feedback on the entire process when it is over
Ask for feedback on your facilitation through all of it
To quote Eddie Felson played by Paul Newman from The Hustler and The Color of Money – “You have to become a student of human moves”
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