Facilitating from the Side

I presented today on the Itana New2EA Working Group call on the skill of “Facilitating from the Side”. This skill helps make a productive meeting out of one that is poorly planned or poorly run. The nice thing is, you can apply it when you are not up front running the meeting.

I started with poll of attendees asking the question, “How often are you in unfocused, orderless, rambling meetings?”. The scale was 1 to 5 where 1=”Never. All our meetings are awesome” and 5 = “OMG! A meeting on my calendar is my worst fear.” The majority of the people put themselves at a 3 on the scale. I think this is true for everyone’s calendars. There are hundreds of articles out there on why most meetings are a waste of time.

Poll Question:  How often
 are you in unfocused, orderless, rambling meetings.
Poll Question: How often are you in unfocused, orderless, rambling meetings?

So what can you do if you are not up front running the meeting?

First off: recognize that you are not alone in the meeting. Probably everyone in the room is wishing that it was going better or that they weren’t there at all. Realizing this is empowering. It means that almost everyone will welcome your intervention. You won’t be hated. They will thank you after.

Step 1: Ask Clarifying Questions

Preface your questions with humility. “I’m just a bit confused…” “Maybe I missed this but could you help me understand…” Ask about three things to help focus the meeting.

  • Could you help me understand the goal of this meeting?
  • So, at the end of the meeting, you would like to have _______?
  • And that means, you would like us to _______ to help you ________.

Step 2: Ask If You Can Write them down

This is a way to get up to the whiteboard or flipchart. It also makes the goals, outcomes and roles visible for the rest of the meeting.

Step 3: Offer Activities

This is more complex but here are a couple of scenarios to help you think through this step.

Meeting Leader: I thought it would just be good to get together and talk.

Your follow-up question: “Just so I know, what is in and out of scope for the discussion?”

Offer activities:

‘Should we do an agenda bash on the whiteboard then vote to see what is the top topic?’

‘We could capture ideas on sticky notes* then group them to find themes’

Should we do a go around to hear what is top of mind from each person?’

Meeting Leader: I thought we would get together and review this document [that wasn’t sent out before hand]

Your follow-up question: Do you want to give us an idea about the types of feedback you are looking for?

Offer activities:

‘Should we break into small groups to read and comment then come back together?’

Note if you do this one, control the conversation when you come back by asking, “Who else had comments in the first section?” This acts as an opening for discussion but it also controls the flow of comments (top down) and you can gather up similar comments more easily (‘I had that too’)

‘Should we take 15 minutes to read the document and capture comments on stickies that we can group later?’

*Always carry a zip top bag with pens and sticky notes

Step 4: Offer to “Help Capture Notes”

Another way to get to the whiteboard and help control the flow of the conversation is to offer to capture the conversation, notes, feedback, ideas, etc. You can ask simply, “Would you like me to capture the feedback / ideas on the whiteboard for you?” Almost always people want help with notes in a meeting. If you are capturing notes, you have the opportunity to “ask for clarification” on topics where you think there should be more conversation. Simply ask, “can you help me understand what you meant by this?” or “could you put this in other words just to make sure I have it right?” This leads you to “is this how others think of this” or “does this make sense to everyone?”

Step 5: Reflect Back Goals and Outcomes

When the conversation gets sidetracked, reflect back the goals and outcomes that were agreed upon. Offer to start up a parking lot for off-topic ideas.

Reflect the goals and outcomes.  Put off topic ideas in a parking lot.
Reflect back the goals and outcomes when the conversation gets sidetracked.

Step 6: Provide a Time Check

You can interject, from the side, time checks. You can say, “I see we have 30 minutes left and I want to make sure we get to where you want?” or “There are 10 minutes left, should we wrap up and capture next steps?” This is a way to keep the conversation moving and focused on the outcomes.

As part of this you can also reflect back next steps. “I see there are 5 minutes left. Let me make sure I have the right next steps. Sarah will _____”

If you do these things, you will have built an on-the-fly effective meeting plan. In short, you will have:

  • Set the goals for the meeting
  • Defined the roles of the participants
  • Defined the meeting outcomes
  • Scoped the conversation
  • Defined the process by which we will get there (activities)
  • Captured the notes
  • Parked out-of-scope conversations*
  • Provided time checks
  • Pushed towards next steps
  • Reflected back the next steps a the end of the meeting

*There was a facilitator at UW-Madison, Lindsey Schmidt, who was running a group that was all over the place and willing to roam across every possible topic. She put the Parking Lot on a flip chart outside of the room. Every time someone went off topic, she would say, “I’ll put that on the Parking Lot” and she would walk out of the room. Everyone thought it was pretty funny but they also got the message. “Stay on topic.”

After the meeting…

If you have time, go up to the meeting owner after the meeting and talk for a few minutes to make sure everything was okay. “I hope it was okay that I was asking questions and taking notes.” You will usually get a “No problem. Thank You for helping” reply. Ask, “I hope you got what you wanted?” This gives the meeting owner a chance to reflect on how the meeting went. They may say, “It was great. You helped a lot.” Hopefully they realize that this meeting has gone better than most and your help is what made it happen. If you have the time and are willing, you can offer to help plan and run the next meeting. Use the checklist above to plan the meeting in advance.

3 Lenses to Apply Before You Facilitate from the Side

There are three lenses I consider before I start to influence how a meeting is being run by someone else. The first is the Political Lens. Whose meeting is it? Who is in the room? Will someone (the meeting organizer most likely) look or feel like fool? Is that okay? The second lens is the Cultural Lens. How does this team or group work? Are they really tight and I am the outsider (this can be an opening to start asking questions)? Are they very top-down hierarchical? How will my questions and actions be interpreted in their culture? Finally, an Investment Lens. Is it worth my political capital to push on this meeting? Is the meeting salvageable at all or will this be wasted effort? Is this where I want to invest? While I get pulled into a much larger effort that I don’t want to be in?

Apply these lenses and decide if you want to help a meeting run better. If you decide you do want to help, remember to come from a place of humility. It is amazing what a few questions and an offer to “help write things down” can do to make a mediocre meeting much better.

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