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  • Preparation, Maintenance, Being Yourself, and The Art of Facilitation or How I Learned to Love Meetings: Redux.

    I recently found myself speaking with a potential client about running a big meeting for them. This conversation got me thinking about the value of running a well-run meeting, which in turn got me thinking about how much I once thought about what running a well-run meeting actually involved. I've run a lot of meetings since I first started thinking about this, but this moment of reflection did remind me that I once wrote an article for FORUM magazine, in March 2002 to be exact, about running meetings titled: The Art of Facilitation of How I Learned to Love Meetings. That piece is no longer available digitally, so I decided to reprint it here. Please let me know what you think, and if you want to talk facilitation with me, or if you need someone to run a meeting for you or provide some training on the art of facilitation, please do give me a shout.

    The Art of Facilitation of How I Learned to Love Meetings: Redux.

    People tell me all the time how much they hate meetings. And when they do, I ask them whether we're talking about all meetings or just the bad ones. While this distinction may seem subtle, it is an important one for those of us who work in associations.

    There are times when people have to meet-during strategic planning, for example-and so the real question is not why we have to hold meetings, but why we have to attend meetings that are so poorly run.

    I would argue that meetings are poorly run for any number of reasons, but that most of these reasons fall under the umbrella of poor facilitation. I would also argue that the person who assumes the role of facilitator is responsible for the meeting's success, and that the likelihood for success is enhanced if the facilitator focuses on two key areas: (1) preparation and (2) maintenance.

    I would add that, for the sake of this article, I am defining the facilitator as the person who, by choice or request, is in charge of running a meeting. "Meeting" in this context is being defined as a workgroup type of meeting where people have been gathered to solve some sort of problem and/or work toward a goal or objective.

    Preparation

    It has been suggested that facilitators should spend as much time preparing for a meeting as they will spend in that meeting.

    Ask yourself whether you really need to hold the meeting
    It is easy to call for a meeting any time something is pressing. But before you do, ask yourself whether holding that meeting is truly necessary or if you can do the work that needs to be done via phone, email, Skype (or Zoom), or office visit.

    Identify and prepare the meeting room or place in advance
    There are a series of questions you must ask yourself in advance about the meeting place. Do you know where you will meet? If so, is the space reserved? Do you have the tools you need to run the meeting-flipcharts, markers, etc.? If the meeting is off site, can people not only reach the site, but if necessary, park there conveniently?

    Prepare an agenda in advance
    This allows you to address two key needs: (1) it forces you to contemplate the meeting's direction, objectives, and topics prior to the start of the meeting and (2) it tells the participants not only what topics are going to be discussed but also how much time has been allotted for their discussion.

    Some additional thoughts on agendas:
    Confirm that the people who have been assigned various tasks between meetings have actually undertaken them before including them on the agenda.

    If there are pre-read documents that accompany parts of the agenda, distribute them in a timely manner prior to the meeting along with the agenda.

    As pace as the participants' energy level are important to consider when preparing an agenda, a good rule to keep in mind if the rule of thirds, i.e., think of the meeting in three sections, with the opening section loosely focused on information sharing, the middle section focused on thinking and action, hence when people are freshest, and the final section focused on next steps and winding down.

    Prepare open-ended questions for each section of the agenda where there are topics you want to ensure are discussed.

    Identify, invite, and engage key stakeholders in advance
    When you invite prospective participants to attend a meeting, you need to be prepared to tell them why you have done so. People always want to know why you think they need to attend.

    As facilitator it is also your job to make sure the participants get to the meeting, which may require follow-up phone calls or emails. The likelihood of attendance is substantially increased when you show participants how important this meeting is to you by following-up yourself.

    Crucial to any meeting's success is engaging participants prior to the meeting and getting a sense of where they may stand on certain topics so you can be prepared to guide the conversation whether participants are in agreement or not.

    Bring energy, humor, and enthusiasm
    The tone and direction of any meeting not only takes its lead from the facilitator, but feeds of him or her as well. Given this, as facilitator you need to bring whatever energy, enthusiasm, and humor you can summon to meetings.

    Maintenance

    Of course, preparation is but the half the battle, for once the meeting starts you will face a whole new set of responsibilities.

    Active Listening
    Active listening entails not just seeking to follow the group's dialogue, but guiding that dialogue's flow, direction, and evolution as well. Three emans for accomplishing this are (a) clarifying and restating, (b) making connections, and (c) summarizing.

    Clarifying and restating requires reiterating and reframing key discussion points so that you can ensure that not just you, but the entire group understands what a participant has just said. Making connections involves drawing together different participants' comments to show where the group is or may be in agreement. Summarizing calls for revisiting what you have heard discussed throughout the meeting so you can confirm that the group has heard the same things.

    As facilitator you must be prepared to let the participants do the talking. This doesn't mean that you do not have good ideas or that you cannot share them. What it does mean, however, is that since you have invited the participants to work through a particular issue, it is now your responsibility to let them do so.

    It is also your responsility to draw out, or at least acknowledge, the silent participants. While some participants do not want to speak, there are also those who have much to say, but who aren't sure how best to join the conversation.

    Finally, there is your need to respect silence. While it is human nature to fill the moments of silence that appear during conversations, they don't need to be filled immediately. Sometimes people need a moment to think about what they have just heard. Let them; it is crucial to creativity.

    Maintain control of time and the agenda even while remaining flexible
    Meetings have to be well run, worth one's while, and respectful of the participant's limited time.

    This also involves adhering to the topics that have been identified for discussion and the time they have been allotted on the agenda. As facilitator you must constantly guard against topic drift. At times you must follow a conversation as it veers in an entirely unplanned direction because you may have missed something when developing the agenda or the group may say they want or need to discuss something different. This is fine if it is a conscious decision and approved by the group. What's important to remember here, however, is that changing direction and slowly drifting without direction are two vastly different things.

    Finally, topics may arise that you or the group do not feel should be addressed at that moment or in that particular meeting. At such a time you can offer to place the topic in a "parking lot," which is a place where important topics get parked until they can be discussed at a later date.

    Maintaining control of the group and managing participants
    Participants may impede the flow of group process in any number of ways, but regardless of how they do so you need to engage them and address the disruption head on. For example, if there is a person who tends to ramble on or dominate conversation you must intervene. Or, when there are sidebar conversations going on, you must draw attention back to the conversation at hand.

    The catch here, of course, is not to engage such participants at the expense of group process. One way to approach this proactively is to discuss with the participants early on what the acceptable ground rules for discussion will be-behavior, decisionmaking processes, language-and after that revisit them as often as you need.

    The participants' comfort level and their sense of safety, process, and productivity are important here. The likelihood of accomplishing these things is significantly greater when the few do not ruin it for a whole.

    Ending the meeting
    Summarize what has been discussed so that the whole group leaves the meeting with the same basic understanding of what has occurred. The discuss next steps-(a) what has to happen prior to the next meeting and beyond, (b) who has agreed to take on these tasks, or if needed who will volunteer to do so, and (c) when and where the next meeting will be if one is necessary.

    Depending on the size and importance of the meeting, a means for both affirming and reminding the participants of all of the above is the development of minutes that capture who was present, what was discussed, who agreed to do what, and when you will next meet.

    Consider taking a moment to assess the meeting before everyone departs. While this can be done informally, it is important because people need to feel respected, challenged, and supported if they are going to keep coming back.

    Be yourself
    Finally, as you learn which of the above strategies work best for you, you must always remember to be yourself and mold these strategies to your personality. While making the effort to be a good facilitator ensures that people will return for additional meetings, it is their sense of connection to the person standing behind the strategies that enhances the likelihood that they will buy into the process.

    While ninety percent of life may be showing-uo, showing-up is but one step when it comes to successful facilitation. Given this, the first question you have to ask yourself is whether you understand the responsibilities that accompany this position. The second is whether you are willing to consciously embrace them.

  • Seeking: Stories, Cool Opportunities, Transformation.

    For some time now, I've had this idea that I wanted to write about my search for work. I wanted to do so as a reflection of how I think about teaching my class Loop 202: Professional Development in the 21st Century, and to a lesser extent the article I wrote many years ago the first time I engaged in an extensive job search: The Search: Obtaining the Right Job, Finding Your Self, and Crafting a Career.

    The idea came to me, because just over 18 months ago I left my long time place of employment. I didn't have a plan and I suddenly had to look for work for the for time in a long time.

    I thought I had been open to opportunities before that, but I hadn't really been doing anything. Yes, I had been keeping my resume up to date and my eyes and ears open for interesting things, working side gigs, taking meetings, looking to get my name on projects and publications, opening doors, and pushing, always pushing to work on the next cool thing.

    The thing is, these are the action you take when you're employed, and not exactly willing, or wanting, to leave something that you like, or are comfortable in. When you're scared and not really sure what comes next.

    A job search though is something else. It's contacting everyone you've ever met, worked with, talked to, sat with in a meeting, or next to on a bus, plane, or train, and asking them if they have anything or know anyone, and to keep you in mind if an anything comes up.

    It's also punching-up your LinkedIn page, using it to follow organizations you admire, and connecting with people who do stuff that you want to do even when you do not know them.

    It's saying yes to networking events, finding confidence, and putting yourself out there. All the way out there.

    And it's getting your story down, who you are, and where you've been, what you want to do, and how it all connects. It's also telling that story in a succinct, but slamming fashion, while somehow remaining authentic.

    These are things I know to be true, these are things I teach, and these are actions I have taken.

    What I have ignored, or overlooked, though during these past months is the need to work on things you love and feel passionate about. Sometimes that means, looking back over your career, and life, to remind you what it is that energizes you most. Sometimes it's reminding yourself about what you don't like spending time on. And most difficult, is coming to both understand, and embrace, that there are things you just aren't good at, something that has become painfully clear to me as I sought the next big thing.

    None of this is easy, but it is necessary. Being happy is important. Knowing yourself is important. Spending time working on things that energize you are important.

    In the past few months I've revisited many things I once worked on, but hadn't recently - leading teams, collaboration, story development, strategic planning, building partnerships, organizational change, facilitation, and book promotion - and things I want to spend more time on - storytelling, branding, teaching, and training.

    I've also made a decision: I'm going to go out on my own, I'm going to consult, chase projects that excite me, and look for cool opportunties that are focused in these areas.

    I'm going to craft a new story for myself and figure out how all of these things hang together. I'm going to help people and organizations tell their stories in new and exciting ways. And I'm going to explore how I can link people who want to promote their work and their ideas in cool and innovative ways, with the endlessly fascinating artists, designers, changemakers, and thought leaders I've been cultivating, curating, and connecting with over at (my once faux) cultural and lifestyle (empire) site This Blog Will Change Your Life.

    You can read more specifically about my intentions on my website here and I hope that you will. After that, please let me know what you think about all of this, tell your friends and networks about me, and then let me know how we can work together.

    Cool?

    Thanks.

  • Origin Stories, Organizations, and What Comes Next.

    Introduction

    I was invited to lead a memoir writing workshop for a group of teenagers on a recent Sunday afternoon, but I'm not so sure anyone was asked to sign-up, or even that it was quite advertised, which is to say that it's possible that no one showed-up. Okay, no one showed-up, but that doesn't mean I hadn't borrowed some cool ideas and exercises for the workshop from the storytellers that come speak to the class I teach - Loop 202: Professional Development in the 21st Century, or that I can't share the outline with you. More importantly, as I prepared the outline I was struck that from a storytelling perspective, this outline could easily be adapted for individuals and organizations looking to explore their stories, and reflect on not just what makes them them, or what inspires them, but what they might focus on as they look to the future and what comes next.

    The Outline

    First, begin by clearing some space in whatever space you're in, give people room to move around, get physical, blood flowing, and connecting with the energy of the room and one another.

    Places of Origin

    Think of the room as the world and ask people to go to the part of the world where their family is from. Don't limit them to the places they or their parents were born or moved from. Or even the place where their grandparents came from. Ask them to think about the places of origin they associate with their families, and the origin stories that have been passed along to them. And then ask them their associations with those associations. What do they think they know about place however they define it, and their place in it? How did they get from there to here, the journey, the decisions? What drove those who came before them?

    Life Line

    Next, ask the participants, assuming you have some, to line-up to one side of room. Tell them that where they are standing is when they were born. Have each of them tell you in 30 seconds the story of their birth based on the stories they were told by family, whether it's their biological or adoptive family, or the family they've built for themselves.

    After that, you, or me in this case, stand on other side of the room, and announce what the moment is right then, both the date and time.

    Identify a small group of participants to walk towards you, and say to them by name, if that moment is your birth and this moment is now, you are walking across your life and everything you've experienced - crying, laughing, heartbreak, love, loss - and this point - and then you point - is when you were 5, 10, 15 years old and so on. Now give yourself ultimate permission to think about what comes to you, and resonates with you, about what was happening then.

    Remind them that everything they've ever experienced is available to use and that personal narration is full of life experiences. Then have them walk to that age, and while they don't need to tell the room everything, ask them to share their story for 30 seconds.

    For the next small group, share some prompts: Go to the moment that rocked your world. Go to the moment that changed your life. Go to that moment where you learned a lesson. Coach them to try to focus on place, to put themselves back in that moment, and then have them walk towards that moment and tell you 30 seconds about it.

    After you're done engaging everyone, take a moment to have them assess the experience, how it felt, what they learned, and always taking a moment to reflect.

    Circles

    Now have the participants form two circles, and if the group is really big, multiple circles, but the idea is that there is a circle of participants facing outward, and another circle circling them, standing face to face, and facing inward.

    Start by having the members of the inner circle tell whatever story has captured their imagination, the moment, and what has come to them since the exercises began to the person facing them in the outer circle. Remind them to think about dialogue, what rooms look like, smell like, who was there, their stories too, and to think about contect and texture.

    Give them two minutes.

    Then have the inner circle rotate one person over and tell the same story again to someone new, but now give them one minute. Encourage them to concentrate on what's most important to the story they want to tell. What's the actual story? Which details, characters, feelings, and conversations are most pertinent?

    After that, its the outer circle's turn. Two rotations, rinse, repeat.

    And then take a moment to have the participants reflect, again, this time as both storyteller and listener. What worked, what didn't, what did you want to know more or less of?

    All of it.

    Write

    Now we write. Ten minutes. Again, whatever story resonates most with the participants, have them channel it, and write it, no editing, just writing.

    Maybe though nothing has quite resonated yet, or inspired them, maybe this has been a warm-up for the story they most want to tell, which is great. But maybe that story hasn't taken form yet. The idea is to liberate these ideas, to take action, to keep pushing, and so give them more prompts - one of the happiest days they can remember; their first crush; when they learned to do something new; when they were scared but overcame it.

    Just write, feel something and seek to capture it in words, and on paper.

    Workshop

    And then, and again, assuming you have participants to share their work, ask each person to read what they wrote, and the group to share their thoughts on that work.

    I always encourage people to share something positive first, but then be thoughtful, push people, offer constructive comments about the characters, and point of view, what made sense or didn't, the gaps, and issues around continuity.

    Next

    At this point, we would be done. People would have been on their feet, talking, sharing ideas, moving, digging, reflecting, and writing.

    They would leave with a story, and if the day went really well, stories.

    But that would be it.

    For now.

    And that would be cool.

    But in preparing for this workshop and mixing and matching these different ideas, I started thinking about how this kind of exercise will benefit writers, but my initial interest in these exercises was in helping my Loop 202 students learn their stories.

    We only brief touch on these exercises in class, but why couldn't there be an extended stand-alone session such as this for any individuals who are looking to better tell their own stories as they think about work and what makes them happy?

    Further, and full-disclosure, this has very much been on my mind lately, how do we even know if we are on the path we want to be on professionally?

    Are we happy, effective, and motivated by our work?

    Are we energized?

    When's the last time you asked yourself that? I've been thinking about this alot, and if you aren't certain how to ask yourself that question, or even how to start, why not engage in a series of exercises like these that focus on your origin stories?

    With some tweaks they could be focused on work. Instead of your place of birth for example, what was the first place you ever worked? And what if we asked ourselves not what was our happiest day in general, but what was our happiest day at work?

    Do you know even know the answer to the latter question? Might you want to find out?

    I know that in personally exploring these questions, much of what I have been doing recently is not what made me happiest and most energized earlier in my careet when I first started finding some direction and my voice.

    How do I, you, get back to those things? The first step is making sure you recognize them for what they are and why they meant something to you.

    Further though, why stop with individuals?

    I've worked with many organizations over the years who no longer quite realize, or recognize, who they are, or why they're doing what they're doing, much less how they got there?

    Couldn't we adapt exercises like these for the individuals running these organizations, inviting them to spend time reflecting on their organization's origin story, it's history and timeline, what happened when. What it felt like? What energized the staff? Why people want, or wanted, to come work? What the organization did well and may have gotten away from?

    I'm sure we can and I think this would be really cool, and really doable. I'm still thinking about what it could look like, but if you have ideas about this, or interest in making something like this happen, and you want to talk about it with me, let's do that.

    Just give me a shout, share your thoughts, and we will get down to business.