Meeting Facilitation

Contents


Overview

Despite the bad reputation meetings get, you can think of at least one meeting you attended that you actually enjoyed, because it went well and something good came out of it. A large international study found that people did not mind meetings if they felt something was accomplished.[1] This suggests the main reason meetings get such a bad reputation is that most not only seem like a waste of time, they actually are!

Facilitation is a method of running meetings to make effective use of everyone’s time. This is accomplished by preventing time-wasting habits, building consensus, and creating and tracking action items from all agreements. Facilitation is not:

  • Team leading or management.
  • Mediation.
  • Imposition of the facilitator’s views.

In a well-performing self-directed team, all members will help with facilitation, by filling the role on a rotating basis and/or speaking up to keep the team “on task.” This section is presented at this point in the “Self-Directed agile” process so the change leader can take advantage of the findings on how to drive successful meetings.

The rest of this page summarizes my class on Meeting Facilitation based on academic research, which applies to all types of teams. This FuSca version assumes your team already is or intends to be agile, whether or not it uses an established Agile method.

The change leader facilitating the Self-Directed agile transformation should read this entire section, and then lead the steps linked from it as part of the effort. After that, each person who takes on the Facilitator role for the team should give it a read before their first turn.

The Agenda

Follow a Blueprint

A proper agenda is the blueprint for a good meeting. Without it, the meeting has no better chance of full success than does a skyscraper created from flawed (or no) plans.

Send the agenda out in time for the participants to review it and know what is expected of them. If notes from a previous meeting have not already gone out, be sure to include them with the agenda. Also include any handouts related to issues to be discussed.

If the team uses the FuSca sprint process or standard Scrum to plan and manage its work, those methods will provide the agenda for most of your meetings (the “ceremonies”). For any other, creating and ruthlessly following an agenda will add greatly to productive use of the time and attendee satisfaction.

Format

A useful agenda format (download) for recurring meetings such as team meetings is:

  • Revision of the previous meeting’s notes:
    1. Ask if any corrections are needed.
      Note: After the first meeting, do not allow meeting time for reading them, to save time and enforce the discipline of reading the notes before the meetings.
    2. Achieve agreement on the changes before moving forward.
  • Old issues:
    • Old issues are those discussed in previous meetings.
    • Issues are included here only when:
      • Action items have fallen due since the last meeting, or
      • The group previously agreed to discuss those issues at this meeting.
      • To restart the conversation, have people responsible for action items report their progress, or give a synopsis of the previous discussion and ask a follow-up question.
  • New issues:
    • New issues are those identified but not discussed in previous meetings, and those raised with the facilitator in the interim.
    • Issues raised during the meeting may be given priority over other new issues if the group agrees to do so.
      Note: However, do not skip “Old Issues.”
    • New issues must meet one of these criteria:
      • Relate to team goals, project plans or the Team Charter (see next page).
      • Be a response to a request from outside the team.
      • Relate to an idea or problem that may affect every member.
        Note: If the person raising the issue, or the team at the meeting, cannot relate an issue to one of these criteria, turn the issue back to the person to resolve alone or with selected team members outside the meeting.
  • Review of the Parking Lot and action items (discussed under “Running the Meeting” below).

Meeting Rules

Borrow a Proven Set

Poster with classroom rules like, "We are always nice to other people."Through a combination of research and trial-and-error, I developed a set of rules that help make meetings efficient by reducing time-wasting behaviors. With minor modifications they have worked in literally every type of meeting I facilitated, regardless of what type of people were in the meeting or its purpose. Borrow them as soon as your next meeting. Later on you can add to or modify the set any way the team wants to, but try them as written for now:

  • All members are equal—From now on, your job title, place in the company’s hierarchy, years on the job, and expertise do not give you any special power during team meetings. Perspectives from outside your function will help you and the team see issues related to your function more clearly. Note that functional diversity on a team has been proven to improve performance, but that can only happen if the functions listen to each other.[2]
  • No side conversations—You know how during meetings these two people over here will start talking, then these three, and so on? What happens to the meeting? It grinds to a halt. Usually, people are either A) exchanging thoughts that would be helpful to the whole group, or B) talking about things that have nothing to do with the meeting, a symptom that the meeting is off track. In either case, they are not contributing to the group. For the sake of everyone else in the meeting, the facilitator must politely interrupt any side conversations. If as a participant you feel the need for one, decide what it is that you want to tell the group: either information helpful to the discussion, or your concern that the meeting has gotten off track.
  • No phone calls, e-mailing, texting, or instant messaging—During team meetings, your teammates deserve your full attention and energy. When you miss an opportunity to provide helpful information and cause a backtrack, or worse, the discussion has to be repeated because you missed part of it, you are wasting the time of everyone in the room. Any other business can wait an hour.
  • One subject at a time—If a new subject comes up, write it down for discussion later if it is not on the agenda already.
  • No backtracking—This does not mean you can never revisit an old issue. Once a decision is made, do not let someone go back to it unless there is a compelling reason, like they realized the decision violated a company policy or they have new facts.
  • No decision without an action—Every decision must end with an action item (explained below). Even if the decision is to not make the decision, there is almost always someone who must be informed unless they are in the room at the time.
  • Understand before you decide—This is based on one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.[3] Really listen to other people before you speak, and ask questions if you do not understand their position. Otherwise, attacking it will probably waste time and certainly cause ill will.

Consensus Rule

Another rule I strongly recommend for every team eventually is, “Silence or absence equals consensus.” In other words, team meetings are the only proper time and place for negative discussions of team issues. If you do not speak up in the meeting, you give up the right to complain. This is vital to developing trust among members. Introverts need only ask for time to think about the decision before final approval. In that case, postpone approval at least until later in the meeting, or to the next meeting if possible.

As for the absence part, you will accomplish little if you are constantly waiting for “so-and-so” to be there, because there will often be a so-and-so missing. It is okay to delay noncritical decisions to get information from an expert. But at some point, you have to move on. If you are the person not at a meeting when a decision is made, you need to support whatever the team decides unless, again, you have a compelling reason to backtrack.

Bear in mind that “consensus” does not mean “unanimous agreement.” It just means every person is willing to implement the decision, whether or not they fully agree with it. A healthy team will not reach unanimous agreement on all the big issues.

The claim “conflict is good” takes this point too far, and is scientifically false: Repeated studies have shown that when confrontation turns into either personal or technical conflict, it harms team performance. But falling into “groupthink,” where everyone just goes along to move on, throws away the value of multiple perspectives and discussion time. Open debate is critical to making good decisions. However if debaters never give in, no decisions will ever be made.

Consensus strikes a healthy balance between conflict, endless debate, and groupthink. It requires a willingness to drop your ego when you’ve run out of logical ammunition. This is easier for me when I bear in mind three levels of consensus:

  1. “I agree with the group.”
  2. “I do not fully agree, but I’ll go along with the group.”
  3. “I do not agree, but I’ll help the group make the mistake.”

My goal as a facilitator is to achieve #1 as often as possible. Personally, I like to be at #3 on occasion. If it turns out I was wrong, the team will appreciate my willingness to go along, and recognize that I do not take stands on mere ego. When I turn out to be right, the team will also realize that, and give my future opinions even more weight. In either case, I win: I gain credibility, which increases my ability to persuade in the future.

Unfortunately, in some companies, this is not a realistic rule at the beginning. Some ethnic cultures place great emphasis on hierarchy, so team members have been trained from birth to tell anyone with a leader-like role what they want to hear. (That is not a stereotype or criticism: I am summarizing what people in those cultures have said when objecting to this rule, not to mention cultural research.) Worse, many organizations, regardless of country, have created cultures in which people get emotionally beaten up if they question authority.

In cases of teams objecting to the rule for these environmental reasons, I tell members to set a goal to implement this rule within six months. During that time, the Facilitator should individually call on people to express opinions or consent, and ensure others in the meeting listen to those people without interrupting. Over time, as specific members become more outspoken, ask them privately if you can stop calling on them and assume their consensus when they don’t speak up. Even after implementing the rule, though, you may still need to call on quiet members on occasion. You’ll be surprised how often someone has a good question they could not make themselves ask without being asked!

Running the Meeting

Start on Time

After the first meeting begins the way your company’s meetings usually start, make sure meetings start or re‑start (after breaks) on time—two participants will comprise a quorum. Otherwise you waste the time of people who show up on time, and of those who have to leave on time because of other appointments. If people are tardy, the “absence equals consensus” rule kicks in.

If participants in team meetings often have trouble arriving on time, have the group develop a fun “punishment” for latecomers.

Tactics for Talking

As the Facilitator, to keep the meeting on track for everyone’s benefit:

  • Do not be afraid to interrupt (politely) if necessary.
  • Use humor to reduce tension.
  • Stay close to the agenda: If someone starts talking about an item further down the agenda, or not on the agenda, quickly bring them back to the current topic.
    Tip: If they talk about something not on the agenda, mark off a section of the board, label it the “Parking Lot,” and add their topic there for discussion later if there is time or it is urgent.
  • Use the white board (flip charts, online notes tool, etc.) frequently, especially jotting questions and agreements.
  • Make sure everyone has an opportunity to participate.
  • Watch body language: Challenge participants who are speaking with their bodies but not their voices.
  • Encourage compromise:
    • If the group gets locked into disagreement on an issue, state the points on which there are agreement.
    • Propose compromise positions even if you do not think the team will go for them, to stimulate new ideas.
    • Remind people their decisions are not “written in stone”—If a particular solution does not work, or if new facts come up, the group can revisit the issue.
  • When a decision appears made:
    1. Restate or write it up.
    2. Ask if everyone supports it.
    3. On bigger decisions, ask for at least a head nod from each member.
    4. If someone refuses, ask, “What must change for you to support this solution?”
  • If necessary, use one of the formal techniques under “Decision-Making” on “The Radical Agilist” site.

Create Action Items

For the meeting to be productive, every decision must lead to an action. When using FuSca or Scrum, many of these will go into an Agile Tracker or our “FuSca Light” spreadsheet for startups. Otherwise, ensure each decision results in an action item that must include:

  • Task—What must be done, using words specific or measurable enough that everyone will be able to agree that it is “done.”
  • Responsible Person—An individual agreeing to perform the work or lead a sub-team to do so. Someone with special expertise, or an interest in trying something new, will usually volunteer or be nominated. If the job is too big for one person or will benefit from several perspectives, the champion should ask for volunteers to serve on a sub-team. If someone is nominated who feels overloaded already—especially if they are already taking on other action items—it is okay for that person to say so and perhaps serve as an information source, or be on a sub-team but not lead it.
  • Report Date—Have the responsible person set a realistic due date immediately, with enough time to possibly complete the action.

To ensure items are addressed, create a single list of them. Using a spreadsheet or other tool that can sort the items by date helps. Every facilitator should review past action items each time they create an agenda. After an item is due, include it under “Old Issues” for the person to report the status.

Take Breaks

For longer meetings, break every 60 to 90 minutes, even if it means interrupting a good discussion. A good rule-of-thumb is to have each break last five minutes for every 30 minutes elapsed since the meeting start or the last break. (For example, if an hour has passed, break for 10 minutes.) Never go more than four hours of meeting and break time without a meal break of at least an hour.

Clear the Parking Lot

If you complete the agenda topics with time left, address any Parking Lot issues. Any you cannot complete within the scheduled time should become “New Issues” in the next meeting.

End on Time

Build respect for your starting times by respecting your ending times. If an issue is being discussed five minutes before the end of the scheduled meeting time, interrupt and ask if the discussion can wait till the next meeting. Extend the meeting only through consensus.

Self-Directed agile | ← Prepare to Empower | → Kick Off Process


[1] Rogelberg, et al. 2006.

[2] See: “The Complexity of Diversity.”

[3] Covey 1990.

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