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The facilitation secret sauce to leading more effective meetings and workshops reminds us to put a CAP on wasted time and energy by embracing three behaviors:

Facilitation Secret Sauce - Clear Thinking, Active Listening, & Structure

Clear Thinking

  1. Clear thinking (ie, yields consciousness)
  2. Active listening (ie, yields competence)
  3. Prepared structure (ie, yields confidence)

The effective meeting leader learns to cap waste—to maintain control over direction, environment, and contributions of meeting participants. To be highly effective, requires a servile attitude. Begin as a leader by answering the primary question, “Where are we going?”

Clear Thinking

Nobody is smarter than everybody. The modern leader does not have all the answers, but takes command of the questions. Through appropriate questions, meeting participants focus and generate supportable answers (or responses).

Leaders know where they are going. For most meetings, clear thinking and sense of direction is built in advance. Through preparation, determine and properly sequence optimal questions. If you were designing a new home for example, you would consider the foundation and structure before discussing the color of the grout.

When you are leading a meeting, it is critical that you know what the group is intending to build, decide, or leave with. What is different when they walked into the meeting? The modern leader is a change agent, someone who takes a group from where they are when the meeting begins to where they need to be when the meeting ends. You need to start with the end in mind.

What does DONE look like?

Unclear speaking and writing indicates unclear thinking. Your awareness about where you are leading the group needs to be expressed in writing, for your benefit and the benefit of others. If you are unable to capture the ‘deliverable’ of your meeting or workshop in writing, you are not ready to start your session.

Meetings need to be documented—if it is not documented, then it did not happen. Therefore, an effective leader has to develop detailed awareness, in writing, that describes the end state and successful conclusion of their meeting.

If the purpose of your meeting is simply to “exchange information” then you will likely find more time and cost effective methods than meeting face-to-face. A typical meeting costs USD$20 per minute, a costly venue to simply share information.

Ask yourself, would you typically rather attend a two-hour meeting or go to a movie? Most people would rather go to a movie for at least three reasons:

  1. Movies include a beginning, middle, and an end. When did you last attend a meeting without one of those components?
  2. Movies embrace conflict. They do not scurry away from conflict; rather they use conflict to make the experience more compelling.
  3. Movies do not require involvement. It is probably easier and less embarrassing to fall asleep at a movie than a business meeting.

Leadership consciousness

As a successful meeting leader, you must provide a clear purpose (beginning), a meaningful approach (middle), and a consensual wrap and dismiss (end). Unfortunately, throwing together an agenda and relying on your goodwill and charm may let you skate by as a person, but do not qualify you as exhibiting modern leadership traits.

In fact, describing the end of a successful meeting is not enough; you should be able to describe the objective of each step in your agenda. Using the home design example, you would know that at the end of the first step, you might have an articulate purpose for building your house, in 50 words or less (eg, primary or secondary or vacation home, etc; ‘to support kids or grandkids or live-in parents, etc; to be lived in for the next 25 years or five years or five months . . .’).

Leadership consciousness and awareness begins by knowing what the end looks like and in the example above, the objective would be a consensually built, 50 word statement that indicates the purpose of the new dwelling.

Once you can articulate WHY your meeting is important, then you are ready to proceed with the next step. WHAT must you do to be more facilitative?

Active listening

Groups make higher quality decisions than the smartest person in the group. Why? Because groups, when properly led, are able to create options that did not exist before the individuals walked into the meeting. Input from one participant may cause another to think of something they had not considered before the meeting. For a group of nine people, we are looking for the tenth answer. With strong leadership and a little luck, that answer may also include or instill the spark of innovation.

Discipline and structure support thorough analysis, but so will the active listening method and use of stimulating visual prompts. Ultimately we are not facilitating “words” in a meeting, so much as the meaning behind the words. Obviously, meetings occur without the use of the English language at all. Non-English meetings will still be effective because words are only the tools used by participants to signify their intent, meaning, and relationships behind the words. Subsequently, pictures and models are frequently more effective tools than narrative descriptions.

Be prepared to challenge participants. Active listening is a four-step process that is NOT like having a conversation. In a conversation we make contact and absorb what the other person is saying. With active listening we need to feed back the reasons for what we have heard, confirm whether we got it right, and challenge for substantive omissions.

Feed back and Confirm

Active Listening

Active Listening

Having a conversation takes less time. Active listening however prevents misunderstanding and can help push the envelope towards options that were previously not considered, thus improving the quality of the decisions made.

To be highly effective, requires a servile attitude. Next we cover the third item, the missing ingredient in most meetings, referred by us as “Prepared Structure”.

Prepared Structure

A leader should be disciplined and not unstructured. Prepared structure when working with groups, teams, and meetings refers to discipline, or the order of things. Meeting and workshop structure is like a road map for a trip. You can always take the scenic route or a detour, but you need a clear directive to know where to return.

Ironically, the more structured the meeting, the more flexible you can be. Without structure, or a road map, you can never tell exactly where you are, or more importantly, how much remains to be covered. With structure, you can divert from your plan and take the scenic route knowing that if the team runs into a dead end or gets bored with the scenery, you can always return to your map and planned guidance.

Left to their nature, groups tend to start “solving” before they complete proper and rigorous analysis. The leader needs to play the role of a process police person, and should never be too nice. Teams do not want a nice leader; rather they want a leader who will get them where they are going, on time, and within budget. “Nice” can take place after the meeting is over, in a different role.

Naturally the situation demands professionalism, respect, and common courtesy—but leading is not like having a group of friends, rather it is a group of associates, bound by a common cause.

Consensus Building

The nature of building consensus mandates that we seek understanding first about WHY we are doing something. If we cannot reasonably agree on WHY something is important, it is highly unlikely that you will later arrive at consensus. We define the term consensus as something “you can live with.” It does not mean “favorite” nor does it necessarily imply total agreement. It does mean that everyone agrees to support it, and that no one will lose any sleep over it.

Agreement would be like everyone playing the same note on the same instrument. That would be boring after a while. We are seeking harmony, or better yet, the harmonization of different notes being played on different instruments—something akin to music, whether a symphony or hip-hop.

The leader dictates tempo, volume, and who plays when. The leader does not however pick up an instrument and start playing on behalf of the meeting participants. It is the participants’ responsibility to play their instruments. It is the leader’s responsibility to provide cohesion.

Once you get a group to agree on why something is important, next you guide them through the appropriate analysis. There are numerous approaches and tools to consider using. There is usually more than one right answer (or option).

Tool Selection

Each option brings a discrete risk-reward that you need to consider, in advance—ie, prepared structure. WHAT type of analysis is best suited for ‘this’ group, given constraints, assumptions, urgency, etc?

The last thing a groups needs is for their leader to turn to them and ask them HOW they want to continue. They need a leader with a strong spine who will tell them HOW TO proceed; what is the question being asked, how it will be answered, and how does the answer support next steps and the deliverable.

Most forms of effective leadership sequence the WHY of understanding before the WHAT it means or WHAT can we do to support it. For each fact or piece of evidence that supports understanding (WHY) there can be more than one implication. Therefore, learn to separate the WHY and the WHAT and structure them separately.

The final part of structure is the HOW we are going to act upon the WHAT we are doing—accomplished. Again, for each WHAT there can be more than one HOW, and you need to lead a group through an understanding of its options. Generally speaking, the WHAT is abstract such as “pay bills” while the HOW is concrete such as “write cheques.”

In summary, the trivium of team discipline is:

  1. WHY is something important?
  2. WHAT are we going to do to support it?
  3. HOW are we going to get it done?

The brainstorming method likewise follows the triumvirate form of discipline. Its three steps are frequently called:

  1. Diverge (Input)
  2. Analyze (Analysis)
  3. Converge (Output)

The executive decision-making process follows a similar threefold discipline, although expressed in completely different terms:

  1. Facts (What?)
  2. Implications (So What?)
  3. Recommendations (Now What?)

Be a disciplined leader and know your structure before the meeting begins. Once you develop awareness about where you are leading a group, rigorously apply the discipline of structure to decide how you are going to lead them.

Secret Sauce

You will be incredibly successful when you CAP waste and prepare yourself and your participants thoroughly with:

  1. Clear thinking (ie, yields consciousness about WHY it is important)
  2. Active listening (ie, yields competence about WHAT could be done)
  3. Prepared structure (ie, yields confidence about HOW is will happen)


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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