Clients frequently contact us about facilitating a meeting or workshop on behalf of an individual or organization. It might be a large, multi-national firm planning a complicated, and potentially expensive, deliverable. It could be a small, nonprofit organization seeking to get the most out of their busy board member’s time. While one organization seeks someone with the methodologies to lead their meeting, another seeks a meeting designer. In both cases, what they want is someone with the knowledge and skills necessary to make their meeting efficient and effective.
Methodologist or Meeting Designer? Since it’s not likely all groups use the same term, should we adjust? Given the nature of increasing diversity among participants, you will find ESL (English as a Second Language) replaced by EFL (English as the fourth or fifth language). Therefore, the clearest route would be to keep it simple. It may be tough replacing the term ‘deliverable’ with the term ‘goal.’ It may be even tougher to replace the term ‘methodologist’ with the phrase–‘meeting designer’. However, it appears that sooner is better, and now is the time to make the rhetorical shift.
Make Your Language “Grandma” Friendly
My grandmother might not know what a methodologist is, but she would at least feign to understand meeting designer. Likewise, she would cast an evil eye at the term ‘deliverable’ while comfortably absorbing the expression–meeting goal.
Skills of a Meeting Designer
First and foremost, a meeting designer needs to know the meeting goal—WHAT to design, build, or agree upon that will thrill the executive sponsor and excite the other stakeholders (people in the meeting).
Once the “done” of the meeting is clear (or clearer), begin to consider the participants, their areas of expertise, group dynamics, and potential dysfunction. The tools selected for use during the meeting reflect the needs and abilities of the participants, their current or likely level of cooperation, and other constraints such as time and space.
Progress or Breakthrough?
To what extent is creativity, breakthrough, and innovation required, contrasted to getting the work done and get on with it. True design allows for inspiration that requires “empathetic thinking, human-centered activities, and getting people to work together.”* Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody because participants leverage one another’s strengths to build a solution that did not walk into the room.
If simply getting the work done is satisfactory, use tried and proven tools such as DQ Spider, Power Balls, Perceptual Mapping, and Quantitative SWOT analysis. However, for the extra reach, get out of your comfort zone and experiment with the Creativity tool, Coat of Arms method, and many more tools such as may be found at Liberating Structures or Mycoted, both accessible through our “20 Worthwhile Bookmarks” found in our Best Practices articles.
Leverage Proven Structure — Decision-Making for Example
Assemble or sequence your tools and activities around a proven structure. For example, consensual decision-making requires at least three components that can be built any which way from using Post-it® Notes to submitting notes electronically, including:
- Purpose of the Object of the Meeting: (Note: NOT the purpose of the meeting. You better know the purpose of the meeting before you go any further). As a simple and concrete example, if the intention of the meeting was to make a decision about a gift for someone retiring, what is the purpose of the gift? (eg., gag gift, keepsake, memorable experience, etc.)
- Options: From which to choose. Amazon is well-known for providing lots of options, but the same can be said for competing brands in brick stores such as Target® and CVS®.
- Decision Criteria: Factors that must be considered when selecting among the competing options. For gift-giving, to what extent it will appeal to the recipient, provide a sense of reward and recognition, etc? Note that many groups fail to separate the options from the criteria and thus, prioritize their options. In fact, the way our minds operate, we prioritize our criteria and apply prioritized criteria against our options. For example, if you are selecting a new garment, size may be more important than fabric.
While your meeting design may call for various and creative means of generating gift ideas, eventually options must be compared with the prioritized decision criteria to build consensual agreement and understanding. Smashing your options and criteria together can also rely on various methods, for example:
Leverage Proven Structure — Problem-Solving for Example
For problem-solving or gap analysis, the tried and proven structure suggests:
- Purpose of the Object of the Meeting: If one was constructing a plan to solve for burnout in the IT service department, what is the purpose of the IT service department? Since a solution is frequently called a plan, and all plans are WHO does WHAT, to know how valuable the WHAT (or action) is, we need to determine to what extent it supports the purpose. Always begin with the WHY (purpose and input) to generate consensual agreement about the WHAT (action and output).
- Current Situation: Where are we now? What does the problem look like? Describe the problem condition, etc.
- Optimal Situation: Where do we want to be? What does the solution state look like? Describe the ideal or optimal condition, etc.
- Symptoms: What are we observing that indicates a problem exists? For example, with burnout among the IT Service Department, perhaps tardiness, wrong tools, red-eye, etc.
- Causes: For each symptom, there could be more than one cause. Since plans should be focused on causes rather than symptoms, develop a list of potential causes.
- Mitigation: Once the problems are understood, then ONE AT A TIME ask about potential solutions. You CANNOT ask, “What are the ALL the actions we should take to address ALL the causes?” Be prepared to sharpen the question even further. For example, if fatigue is a major cause of burnout, there are at least four questions to ask . . .
- What can the service technician do to help prevent fatigue? (eg, diet)
- What can management do to help prevent fatigue? (eg, ergonomics)
- What can the service technician do to help cure fatigue? (eg, earlier to bed)
- What can management do to help cure fatigue? (eg, hire more resources)
Meeting Designer Creativity
To obtain answers to the questions above, you can leverage numerous tools and methods, from individual Post-It Notes to group-built illustrations. When it comes to HOW you reach the group goal, there is more than one right answer. There is a wrong answer, however, and that is if you don’t know the HOW when your meeting starts.
“Being a meeting designer helps you push people beyond their conventional thought patterns by using human-centered design methods, playfulness and visualization.”*
Facilitating Your Meeting Design
Practically speaking, given a well-planned and scripted meeting design, I could facilitate the meeting for you. The role of facilitator is different than the role of meeting designer. Many link facilitator to the metaphor of a referee.
Most situations in life are complex and not easily rendered as black nor white. However, two exceptions come to mind.
- Pregnancy — I’ve never heard a woman say that she is partially pregnant. I’m willing to bet you haven’t either. She’s either pregnant or she’s not.
- Meeting Neutrality — You, as the facilitator, should never be viewed as partially neutral. Much like a referee can NEVER grab the ball and shoot or pass, the facilitator should NEVER offer their personal opinion and subjective beliefs. If you do, you will no longer be viewed as neutral, and will no longer be trusted.
Another analogy we frequently use involves a music conductor. Though they are responsible for all of the musical attributes of a composition or recording, they do not play the instruments. They depend on their musicians. As facilitator, you are the process police, not the subject matter expert–that role belongs to the meeting participants.
While the role of facilitator demands neutrality, the facilitator should demand equality among participants. All must be treated fairly and with the same amount of deference. Participants should leave their egos and titles in the hallway. It doesn’t matter if a participant has been on board for 22 days or 22 years, their potential input is equally valuable.
We’ve learned from one of our alumni that, in some facilitated sessions, the Joint Chiefs of Staff wear sweaters to hide rank. Everyone has permission to speak freely. I.e. Once distractions have been removed, the facilitator’s primary responsibility ensures that everyone gets heard.
Recording Output is Critical but Secondary
If it wasn’t documented, it didn’t happen. Therefore, documenting results becomes evidence of a successful meeting (or not). However, HOW it gets recorded is less important since recording can be transposed from one form to another. Answers can be displayed and transferred from one medium to another. Thus, HOW resolutions are recorded becomes much less important than building consensus.
Start with Primary Form to Convey Meaning
While rhetoric and both use and reliance on words are the primary means of communicating in meetings, other methods are equally satisfactory. Sometimes, they are actually preferred.
Call the use of words “narrative”. Then look at various means of communicating the meaning behind the words used:
- Iconic (or, Symbolic) — Icons and symbols project intent and meaning, many have become universal to leapfrog challenges associated with narrative approaches. Street signs, bathroom symbols, and public transportation indicators project meaning and intent, frequently without much room for misunderstanding (take the STOP sign for example).
- Illustrative — Drawings, illustrations, and other creative artwork reflect meaning, intent, and purpose. Note that a picture of a bird provides a more powerful way of understanding a bird than a narrative description.
- Non-verbal — Needless to say, much of the information in a meeting transfers through body signals, openness (or closeness), shifting eyebrows, frowns of disapproval and grins of approval, etc. Hand gestures alone help explain the verve and passion or intensity behind some meeting participants’ claims.
- Numeric — We built our quantitative SW-OT analysis to describe the Current Situation numerically, thus avoiding initially some of the emotion and passion that can bog groups down. By starting with numbers, instead of words, participants strive to understand rather than trying to be understood.
- Others — Arguably dance, music, and other forms of expression also communicate meaning and intent, although most of us rarely engage other methods for expressing intent beyond the first five mentioned above.
“The biggest communication problem is that we don’t listen to understand, rather we listen to reply.”^
Meeting Design Structure Increases Flexibility
Without meeting design structure, we are not flexible. Rather, we are loosey-goosey. Meeting design structure enables us to take the scenic route with the understanding that if it dead ends, or becomes boring, we have a path wherewith to return.
Look at your normal meeting ‘discussion’ ( a term closely related to concussion and percussion). Without a facilitator or leader, people may discuss relevant items and gather some good information, but the meeting ends, not when the content has been resolved, but when the time runs out. Unfortunately, we don’t normally complete meetings, but we do end them.
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^ Original source remains unconfirmed, including perhaps Yqbehen and Stephen Covey. Sometimes attributed to George Bernard Shaw who said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”