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7 Tips for Effective Facilitation

It’s so easy for a meeting to veer off track. One minute, you’re discussing the goals for next month’s sprint, and the next, it’s on to everyone’s favorite vacation locale. As a business analyst, project manager, or ScrumMaster, facilitation is a significant part of your role. Facilitation is a huge part of communication – and thorough communication is one of the core […]

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July 28, 2014

It’s so easy for a meeting to veer off track. One minute, you’re discussing the goals for next month’s sprint, and the next, it’s on to everyone’s favorite vacation locale.

As a business analyst, project manager, or ScrumMaster, facilitation is a significant part of your role. Facilitation is a huge part of communication – and thorough communication is one of the core components of what makes projects successful.

How do you keep meetings from taking on a life of their own? Here are seven tips that I’ve found helpful in managing group dynamics and getting the most out of facilitated sessions.

1. Start on time. End on time. This is probably the easiest thing you can do to make your participants willing to attend. Remember that your participants have other obligations, other meetings, deadlines, etc. Establishing a pattern of starting late or running over sends the wrong message – that you do not care about your participant’s time. A recent study found that simply keeping your promise makes people just as happy as exceeding expectations. If you simply start on time and end on time, that will make will make your group as satisfied as ending early.

2. Have, and communicate, a plan. Even if you only have time for a half-baked one, it’s really about setting expectations for your participants. Explain why they are there and what you need from their participation. That helps them determine if they need to prepare in advance or *gasp* opt out because this is not their area of expertise.

3. Listen. No, I mean really listen. Often times when I’m in “presentation” mode, which is how I feel when I’m facilitating, I get distracted by thinking about the next question to ask or noticing some interesting behavior or body language of another participant. Paying attention to group dynamics is important, but not as important as listening to the person contributing to the discussion.

What helps me stay focused on the person speaking is to listen for the true meaning behind his or her words. You may have to sift through some expository or background details, but I try to find a way of summarizing the person’s response, suggestion or feedback in a short sentence or phrase. By focusing on how I can reiterate an accurate sound bite, this helps me stay in tune with the speaker.

4. Stay on topic. Have you ever been in a situation where you’re moving through your agenda at a brisk pace and then all of a sudden someone gets you off topic – down a rabbit hole never to surface again?

First, try to steer the group back to your agenda. If that doesn’t work and you have a participant that is insistent on continuing the off-topic conversation, don’t engage in a power struggle. Why? Well, it looks pretty and you really shouldn’t have to. Sometimes the person wants to feel heard and acknowledged, so you can put the topic in a visible parking lot (e.g. whiteboard or flipchart) for future discussion or as time permits. Or you can leverage the power of the group. Ask if the other participants want to spend more time discussing the topic or would prefer to defer it until later. The key to handling this situation gracefully is to not assess whether the topic is important to address, but whether it is important to address right now.

5. Involve everyone. Your participants are there for a reason, right? Well, what happens when you only have a few people contributing to the discussion or debate? You may be missing out on an important viewpoint or consideration. There are a couple of techniques you can use to make sure you’re getting feedback from each participant.

My preference in this situation is to have a period of silent writing where everyone writes down their thoughts and then shares with the group, instead of a round robin-style “what is your opinion” discussion. Why is that? With round robin, you sometimes find yourself in the uncomfortable situation where you had a brilliant idea or suggestion, but the person sitting next to you had the exact same one and now you’re left scrambling for something unique. You don’t want to seem like you have nothing to contribute!

This scenario can sometimes exacerbate the reason why someone is hesitant or unwilling to participate in the first place. You may also miss out on an opportunity to spot trends or patterns among the group. If you don’t know what your neighbor is writing, there is no risk of appearing to simply pile on or lack ingenuity.

Another great technique is to dot-vote, which is used heavily in Agile environments. This works especially well when trying to reach a decision or narrow your focus. Give each participant a certain number of votes – three is a manageable number – and let them vote on an option, initiative, area of discussion, etc. and allow the priorities to emerge.

6. Remain impartial. Or at least try to. You are there for one main reason and that is to help the group achieve the best possible outcome. During a debate, things may get heated and you will most certainly get caught in the middle. As the facilitator, your participants may feel like you are a safer target than their real adversaries. Or humans sometimes behave like humans – flawed and imperfect. Accept that this is a reality of your role and do your best not to take it personally. Of course, if it ever crosses a line, give yourself some time to cool off and then address it with the person later.

I actually had someone lash out at me multiple times during a workshop. I assumed I was being overly sensitive until I heard a few team members remark about the harsh comments and terse responses. After I had time to compose myself, I met with the individual to share my observations and to see if I could make any adjustments to my facilitation style. As it turned out, he was dealing with a personal issue that had nothing to do with me. Be honest and open to feedback, but stay grounded in your goal to achieve results.

7. Establish ground rules. You have a limited amount of time and a limited amount of resources. Use them wisely. Do you really need to have your phone in your hand at all times? Do you really need to have a certain stakeholder involved in every group decision? How are you going to make decisions? How are you going to track decisions and outcomes? How are you going to minimize distractions? Iron out these details early on to make future meetings go more smoothly.

These are a few tips that help me facilitate my working sessions. Please share what works well for you!

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