PURPOSE, PEOPLE and PROCESS
(and product, probable issues, power and place just to keep the ‘P’ thing rolling along)
1. Purpose – the WHAT and the WHY
Purpose is gold. And too-often hidden. Get it clear. WHAT are you aiming to achieve. Begin with the end in mind. Get the purpose sharp and available to the group. They should know exactly what they are coming for days before they arrive in the room.
Write out your aim. Use an active verb with an observable and specific outcome. Don’t use verbs like “explore”, “understand” or “know” – they are not observable. Example: “The purpose of this meeting is to develop strategic objectives for our organisation over the next three years”.
There may be more than one aim. Articulate them all. If there is one main aim and then some specific objectives within this main aim, add these as separate objectives underneath your purpose. Make it very clear in your preparation, what is negotiable and what is non-negotiable. Be honest and transparent. You don’t necessarily need to declare the non-negotiables to participants, but you MUST clarify this beforehand with your client or sponsor. For example:
“The purpose of the workshop is to align activities of the two branches. The discussion will address
-annual business planning processes
-communication activities between the branches
Where necessary add some qualifications to get more specific about aims.
Where appropriate, add a ‘context’ statement that helps people to understand the purpose. Why is it important to do this work? Why is it urgent NOW. What is the larger context within which this event is situated? Explain the WHY. What is the deeper, bigger paradigm for the purpose of the meeting? Are we just laying bricks or are we building a cathedral?
Communicate the purpose before the meeting. Share it in writing. Ask for feedback. Revise as appropriate. Communicate the purpose at the start of the meeting, and test everyone’s expectations.
A strong sense of purpose gives the facilitator power to confront the group assertively when things are not going well. “Ok folks, it seems we are getting off track, can we just check in about how strongly this current discussion is related to our fundamental purpose today. Is this helping us get there?”. Restate the purpose if you think that things are getting off track. This is why it is crucial to make sure people are clear and committed to the purpose at the beginning of a session.
Outcomes (Product, Results)
Be bold about defining what a very successful outcome could look like. Before the meeting, get your client to be clear about what the end result should look like. Not the specific content, but the size, shape and feel. For example, a ‘strategic plan’ can be a 10 page dot point list of details, or a succinct paragraph with 3 clear directions.
At the start of the session, Invite the participants to imagine what this success could look like. Aim to get a result. Push for concrete and specific outcomes.
Throughout the meeting drive discussion towards answering the key questions, documenting decisions, and delegating action items. Be rigorous about this. Get a reputation for being tough on delivering results.
At the end of the meeting do a short summary of key outcomes (even better, have someone else do this). Check with people that it is correct.
Immediately publish a concise note of the meeting outcomes: distribute point form action items and decisions from a meeting to the members as soon as possible in order to promote momentum towards their application and completion.
Give clear direction for delegated responsibility: use the meeting to decide basic plans and then empower individuals to make them happen. Give them goals, parameters, scope, a time line with milestones, any related policies, and specify when and how they will report on their progress.
Before the meeting, consult with your client and a sample of stakeholders about the issues that are likely to emerge. Anticipate the likely/probable issues. Turn them into prompt questions, if appropriate, to help shape the discussions in a useful and structured manner.
Have useful information on hand. Make sure all the necessary information is available in suitable form. Delegate someone to be responsible for bringing and organizing by-laws, policies, budgets, minutes, and other organisational documentation to be easily referenced.
Display critical information in the meeting to inform the discussion: use a white board, flip chart, overhead projector or data projector to allow all participants to read and reference pertinent questions and information for the current topic of discussion. This will save time that might be wasted revisiting information that is already available.
2. People – the WHO
Who must be in the room to achieve the purpose? Be clear who needs to be invited to the meeting. If a critical member is not available, consider rescheduling.
Is the ‘whole system’ relevant to the aim of the meeting available in the room? Use the acronym “ARE IN” – to make sure you have the people with the relevant attributes:
Authority, Resources, Information, Expertise, and Need. (Source: Marvin Weisbord.)
What do you know about the individuals? Is there anything you need to prepare to address specific needs or interests? Do they have a clear WIFM (What’s In It for Me)?
Is there anything that people need to do to prepare for the meeting? Do they know why they are coming? Have they done the homework? Have they had an opportunity to give feedback on the purpose of the meeting?
Are there people who are strangers to each other? What will you do to break the ice?
Are there different roles for different participants and do these need to be made clear?
Have you developed approaches that will cater to different learning styles and personality preferences for sharing information and discussion. Is your facilitation style biased toward the fast responders and likely to discount the quiet, more reflective participants (read Susan Cain’s Quiet to open your eyes to the importance of introverts). Have sessions that mix fast and slow.
Build rapport with participants. Be positive, encouraging. Don’t take sides, you must serve the whole group.
Do you have people in the room with widely different power or status? Is there a risk that the discussions will be distorted by these power differences. Is the boss in the room? What does this mean for how attendees participate and for how you will conduct the meeting? If you have a chance, talk to the boss beforehand and set up some appropriate ground rules for their behaviour, if is appropriate or necessary.
The Facilitator has a fundamental responsibility to manage the group in a manner that makes it safe and appropriate for all to participate. Sometimes this means you have to protect the weak and constrain the strong personalities. This does not necessarily mean ‘equal time’ for everyone. There may be some with expertise that needs to be brought forward. It does mean ensuring that some who are quiet or shy feel comfortable to contribute. There may be decision makers present who have greater responsibility for the outcomes. How do we give them appropriate acknowledgement or ensure that they can authentically acknowledge their constraints.
Decision-making is another aspect where power needs to be transparent. Is the meeting for consultation purposes or does it have authority to make the decisions? For example, will this meeting make the decisions or provide recommendations to the decision-makers? Who has the power for final decisions and allocation of resources? If the meeting has power to make decisions, do you have a clear process for such decision-making? Are the participants clear about this? Are the processes for decision-making transparent and agreed upon? In a larger political context, is this meeting positioned in a way that it can usefully influence agendas, beyond those in the room at the time. How will this happen? Does it need to happen? Are there participants who will be encouraged, or permitted to play politics in the room, to conduct hidden agendas? How can you address this danger?
The facilitator needs to be aware of power issues in order to manage expectations and group dynamics. In your role, you do have power and it should be used to focus the group on its purpose, protect the weak and constrain the dominant. Unleash all the expertise available in the room, however noisy or quiet, fast or slow.
3. Process – aligning purpose and people
Create a realistic and useful agenda. Be tough-minded about your time estimates. Are the aims of the meeting achievable in the timeframe?
Time each item on the agenda. For each item include a practical allotment of time, some key background information, and the key questions to be answered.
Give explicit attention to how each section of the meeting will be conducted – the ‘right hand column’ of your agenda.
Create variety in the process to keep people engaged. Try new approaches. See what works.
For any information presented, make it easy for members to skim and reference, before and during meetings. Use concise point form in your documentation. Where possible present information in a range of different formats – printed handouts, pictures, slides.
Set ground rules. Establish meeting rules that include the option for the Facilitator to interrupt a speaker and ask if they are on topic, being concise, or repeating already stated points. Invite people to think about supporting or supplementing the chairing role. Train people to be responsible for specific behaviours that support or hinder collaboration.
Create an environment that is safe and secure for people to express their authentic views. Give explicit attention to the ‘weak signals’ – people who are reluctant to push themselves forward, but who may have the best idea on the day.
Allow people to ‘differentiate’ before they ‘integrate’. Diverge first, then converge (see Marvin Weisbord’s book in the references below). Use individual brainstorming and ‘go-rounds’ to get out different views. Encourage and support differences (“Anyone else support that proposition?”). Put people in small groups with allies to work their ideas through. Then when it is time to ‘integrate’, do the opposite, bring people with different views/roles/functions together in small groups to find the common ground. While divergence is essential, especially in the early stage of the session, refrain from creating unnecessary debate: playing the “devil’s advocate” is popular in our culture, but if you don’t really see value in a counter argument, don’t waste the group’s time by raising it. Discourage others from doing it.
Not everyone has to have ‘equal time’ in the meeting. Sometimes the relevant expertise lies in a couple of people. Give them extra time, but make sure that others are engaged and contribute.
Develop your skills in moving from ‘debate’ to ‘dialogue’ – deeper understanding and acceptance of what lies beneath different views, is the first step to finding solid common ground.
Use your ‘process radar’ – observe carefully, track everyone’s participation, check-in regularly (“How are we going…?”, “Do we need to move on now…?”).
When things go wrong, look for explanations in your Process, not faults in the People. It is much easier to change ‘structure’ than behaviour. Are people frustrated because the aims of the meeting are too ambitious? Have you spent too long on one issue using the same process, and people are getting bored?
Critical advice – Don’t do everything yourself. Get other people involved in meeting tasks: flip chart recording, mind mapping, short presentations, managing small group discussion (facilitating, recording, reporting). The less you do, the more people take responsibility. Most of your real work is done in the preparation phase. Whatever you do, DON’T talk all the time.
Be mindful that the words you use matter. As you introduce each topic or activity, pay close attention to how you ‘frame’ or introduce the idea. At a really basic level, make sure that no-one is excluded or offended by your instructions or explanations. Create a sense of openness, possibility, and excitement about what you are offering – an invitation to explore and experience. More on this later in the Workbook.
How is the room laid out?
Do you want everyone gathered round a board table? Is it better to have smaller groups on different tables? Don’t underestimate the value of the ‘café’ or ‘cabaret’ style of layout which privileges the importance of small group discussion.
Would it be useful to create a circle of chairs for a really warm and open discussion? With groups that are not too large, don’t be afraid to invite them to change the furniture and layout for different sessions (where it is possible and appropriate).
Have you got the necessary equipment? Have you tested it?
It is always valuable to get into the room and check the layout and equipment well before the start time. It is an unforgivable waste of time and money for people to be held up waiting for the data projector to work. It is disrespectful.
How will you track and display the group’s thoughts and contributions? If you are using post-it notes, get BIG ones that people can read from a distance. Play BIG, use the whole room, the walls, the windows, get people’s ideas up in clear BIG writing on all the walls so they can track their own contributions throughout the session. Consider the value of graphic recorders in your work, especially if you can afford some professional assistance.