Have you ever been involved in a project that didn't require a meeting? Neither have we. Well-run project meetings allow teams to get through the maze of distractions and obstacles to achieve results. Unfortunately, many project meetings aren't well-run. They are viewed by team members as unproductive and tedious wastes of precious time. But you can change that. This paper contains practical techniques and practices that will help you facilitate your meetings more effectively, transforming them into well-planned, well-managed journeys that engage the team while achieving the intended goals.
The Project Manager as Facilitator
“Facilitation is like dancing. If your mind wanders, you miss the rhythm and trip.” (Hunter, Baily, & Taylor, p. 37)
In an informal survey of our clients, we found that project managers spent over half of their time in project-related meetings. Unfortunately, meeting planning, group dynamics, and general facilitation skills are not typically included as part of the project manager training program. And whether you are a project manager or a project team member, you've probably already realized that a significant part of your project experience will revolve around meetings.
What is a Project Meeting Facilitator?
Meeting facilitation is a structured way to help people reach common understandings and solve problems. It's a skill, a process, and an art. We all use this skill in some form or another in our daily lives. In fact, numerous professionals refer to themselves as “facilitators”:
- Trainers, teachers, and instructors facilitate learning
- A master of ceremonies facilitates the event
- A mediator facilitates the negotiation and agreement between two parties
- A coach facilitates personal growth.
For this topic, we'll be discussing how to apply facilitation to project meetings in order to help project teams achieve a specific goal or to build a specific project deliverable.
Sometimes it helps to further clarify a term by defining what it is not. So, in that vein, the type of facilitation we're discussing is not:
- A methodology, but rather a set of skills and techniques that can be applied to both individual and group interactions.
- Just an application of techniques. Those techniques must be combined with an appreciation of the situation and people involved.
- About presenting knowledge or giving advice about the subject being discussed. Instead, it's about guiding that discussion to ensure all parties are engaged in the process.
- Focused on creating “warm and fuzzies,” but is focused on achieving an objective.
- Constrained to following the letter of the agenda, but must be flexible to adjust with the needs of the group and yet achieve the meeting objective.
So what does it mean to facilitate a project meeting? It does not mean directing, dictating outcomes, or getting everyone one to see things from your point of view. It is broader than hosting or being a master of ceremonies, and more involved than just moderating the discussion or monitoring time. The project meeting facilitator (who we'll refer to as the PMF from here out to make reading easier) is about enabling and guiding. Thinking of yourself as a “meeting facilitator” will help you start to form a new mental image of your role and its associated responsibilities.
As Exhibit 1 shows, the core responsibilities of a PMF span the scope of the end-to-end meeting process, and include:
- Establishing and confirming appropriate meeting objectives.
- Translating those meeting objectives into a productive plan for accomplishing them (designing the agenda).
- Communicating effectively prior to the meeting to encourage participant readiness.
- Ensuring that the right people are in attendance to accomplish the objectives.
- Creating an environment that encourages full participation of meeting attendees.
- Getting people engaged and participating productively during the meeting to achieve meeting objectives.
- Communicating meeting results, incorporating meeting outcomes and next steps to maintain project momentum.
- Obtaining and incorporating meeting feedback to continuously improve the meeting process.
These eight responsibilities profile the role of a PMF. Your ability to carry out these responsibilities lays the groundwork for meeting success. Start thinking about the change this may require in your typical meeting scheduling and behavior. An effective PMF does not just show up at start time, out of breath from running between meetings. They don't jump ship during the meeting when the going gets tough. And they don't leave outcomes hanging after the meeting concludes. Instead, they're in the room ahead of time, prepared to lead and guide the team to getting work done, and they follow up effectively to ensure that outcomes are fully documented and used.
What Skills are Required?
Not all meetings are created equal, and neither are meeting facilitators. Just as meetings have different objectives, expectations, and deliverables, they also vary in tone and complexity. We each have meetings that we're more comfortable with based on our individual experiences and preferences. A meeting to facilitate senior management through project strategy and funding decisions is certainly different than a weekly team meeting to confirm project progress. And while you might be a master at status meetings, you may not be the best person to facilitate requirements development meetings. Understanding your personal strengths, preferences, and growth areas will help you determine which meetings best fit your current skills.
Like the Project Management Professional, there is a competency certification process for facilitators. The International Association of Facilitators has identified six core competencies, which are summarized in Exhibit 2.
In addition, understanding your own communication style and personal preferences is key to being an effective facilitator. Various types of testing tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI), the DiSC® Profiling system, and various communication style indicators are helpful in making you more self-aware and more aware of the preferences of others.
When is Facilitation Most Helpful?
Every meeting will have a facilitator – whether by intent or by default. However, there are some situations where an objective, experienced facilitator (either outside your project or organization) should be engaged. An experienced facilitator will be most valuable when:
- There is extreme passion or discord around topics
- The meeting is lengthy or complex
- There are challenging group dynamics (such as participants who dominate and intimidate others)
- The meeting or its outcome is highly political
- There are known rivalries between organizations attending the meeting (and the internal resource has to take sides)
- The meeting requires specialized modeling, diagramming, or analysis techniques.
When to Meet and When Not to Meet
Meetings are often viewed as time wasters—unfortunately, with good reason. A 2004 survey commissioned by Interactive Meeting Solutions LLC found that:
- 55% of meetings are dominated by one or two people
- 32% of people feel they could get fired for speaking the truth in a meeting
- 39% of decisions are made once the meeting is over
- 80% of the discussion is about things people already agree on.
Obviously some of these meetings should have never been held. But could the PMF have realized that ahead of time? We think so. Let's walk through a few guidelines to help you evaluate whether a project meeting will be beneficial, rather than an unfortunate waste of resources. Hold a meeting only if:
- The reason for the meeting is essential to the project. Before you hold a meeting, spend some time thinking through your meeting purpose and desired outcomes. Be sure that these are necessary to the project.
- The goal requires collaborative interaction. Be certain that collaboration is necessary to achieve the outcomes. Communicate the meeting purpose and outcomes to your team in a way that stresses their value in the process. It allows team members to assess their contribution in light of competing priorities and come better prepared to achieve the outcome
- The right people can be present. Don't take the “shotgun approach” to meeting invitations. Carefully target the smallest number of participants who can cover the scope and outcomes of the meeting. Four to six participants is often ideal. Communicate the purpose and outcomes, and plan the appropriate length of time to accomplish the objectives, whether this is two hours or two days. Make sure that your primary attendees are available, and consider options such as virtual meetings and video conferencing as needed to get the right people involved.
- There's someone to manage the meeting process. In a survey of project managers, lack of effective meeting controls was identified as the primary cause of meeting ineffectiveness by almost half of the respondents. (Means, Adams, Spivey, & Garrison, 2006). These meeting management issues included allowing participants to go off on tangents, multi-task during the meeting, have sidebar conversations, arrive late, and dominate meeting conversations. We'll discuss some techniques for handling many of these issues in the next section, but in the meantime we'll simply say that the responsibility for managing these distractions falls squarely on the shoulders of the PMF (whether that is the project manager or someone else). This person must have the necessary facilitation skills and experience to deal effectively with issues and keep the meeting focused.
Techniques to Keep the Team on Track
Keeping the Team Focused
It's a sad truth that more time is spent discussing irrelevant meeting topics than relevant ones. Changing that trend requires using facilitation techniques that will refocus tangent discussions while keeping the group engaged and motivated. Three of the most common focusing techniques are the use of Objectives, Action Items, and the Parking Lot.
Never hold a meeting without defining and communicating the reasons or purpose of the meeting. Not only do the objectives set the tone of the meeting, they are also a handy tool for keeping discussions focused during the meeting. Use them as a measuring stick for every conversation to see if it has value.
In situations where you're unsure if the conversation is necessary, ask the team to explain how the conversation is relevant to the objectives. If it's not, list the topic in the Parking Lot for future use and move on.
Action Items are tasks that need to be completed after the meeting. Each action item must have an owner (one person, not multiple) and a due date. Capture an action item when…
- A decision can't be made without additional information
- More thought or work is required to finish a task
- Additional people need to give input or validate information, but they are not available.
This technique helps keep the team focused by removing discussion about things that can't be resolved in the meeting, while ensuring that follow-up occurs. However, be careful not to use action items to postpone difficult tasks that could really be completed during the meeting.
The Parking Lot is a temporary storage place for ideas, concepts, desires, and thoughts that are tangential to the objectives of the meeting. As these “off-topic” items pop up, write them down on a flip-chart page labeled “Parking Lot.” If you simply try to ignore them, they will keep coming up throughout the meeting. By writing these items down the meeting participants feel that they have been heard and can move on to other thoughts. You may want to include these parking lot items in an appendix of the meeting documentation.
Managing Group Momentum and Dynamics
Sometimes meetings get stuck. You may have very vocal participants who want to share their opinions on everything, or conversely, timid participants unwilling to speak up. Team members may chase their tails on topics without every finding closure or moving forward. All of these situations will ultimately affect the success of your meeting, so manage these dynamics by using your Agenda and Ground Rules to keep the team moving. Apply Time-Boxing to ensure that discussions lead to action and use the Nominal Group technique to get equal participation from all team members.
Agendas are a common meeting tool. A good agenda should provide a high-level list of activities that will enable the team to achieve the meeting objectives. In addition to providing the meeting roadmap, it can also be used as a motivational tool. Refer to it frequently to check off the items that have been completed. This will reinforce what's been accomplished so far and keep the momentum moving forward.
The agenda can also be used to manage conversation. If the team begins to discuss topics that are scheduled for later in the meeting, refer to the agenda and ask them if the conversation can be postponed until then. Offer to capture a few relevant ideas in the parking lot to make sure you don't forget to discuss them.
These rules set the stage for how the team will interact during the meeting. They enable the facilitator to remind the group of their agreements when they lose focus or need to be re-grounded in acceptable behaviors. We recommend that you come into the meeting with a set of standard ground rules and ask for the group's approval rather than creating them from scratch with the team.
Time-Boxing is a great technique to use when the team can't seem to reach closure on a topic or decision. When you sense that group is struggling, announce that they have X more minutes of discussion before they need to make a decision about the topic. If a decision cannot be reached within that timeframe, ask the team to define what they need in order to make that decision, assign an action item to perform the stated task, and move on.
This technique evolved from community action groups working in inner-city Detroit in the 1960s. Large neighborhood groups would often get together to discuss and protest actions taken by community or city officials. Because the topics were so controversial, the resulting discussion would be heated, chaotic, and unproductive. So the managing team decided to gather input by having folks write down their thoughts individually; then share them one by one by going around the room. Comments from other members of the group were not allowed and discussion did not occur until all thoughts had been gathered. This equalized participation and minimized the risk of more vocal members dominating the meeting. In fact, the term “nominal” means “in name only,” thereby labeling the technique as one very effective with groups of people who have been temporarily brought together “in name in only” to discuss a specific topic or achieve a particular objective.
The nominal group technique is helpful for any group with very vocal or timid team members. It also can be used when the topic is very political or involves highly charged emotion, because it allows expression of thought without threat of criticism.
Clarifying Team Communication
Scoping is a visual way of understanding the boundaries of the project or meeting. You can depict the items you will or won't discuss by using a picture frame format (Exhibit 3) or a table (Exhibit 4). Having an agreed-upon scope allows you to better control the conversation during the meeting by ensuring you're talking about relevant topics.
The Glossary is a record of definitions for terms, acronyms, and phrases used during the meeting. The glossary provides clarity to those who were not in the meeting by helping them understand the intent of the terms. This written record is added to the appendices of the meeting documentation.
Other Clarifying Tips
As facilitators, we've discovered a few other things that we can do to help ensure that all meeting participants are on the same page.
- Use the terminology of the meeting participants. In other words, if they refer to an object as a “widget” and you've always thought of it as a “gadget,” adopt their words and call it a widget.
- Capture ideas and comments as you hear them mentioned throughout the meeting. Don't expect people to remember what they said and say it again 10 minutes from now. Instead, capture it and put it in the parking lot if it's not relevant at the moment.
- If there are phone participants, remember to:
• Ask all attendees to state their name when speaking
• Make sure conversation is verbalized—not “head-nods” or non-verbal communication
• Use visual meeting software whenever possible (such as NetMeeting) to allow phone participants to see what is being said.
- Confirm meeting results and “next steps” prior to closing the meeting. Don't just assume that everyone is in agreement. Instead ask participants to indicate their agreement verbally.
Making Group Decisions
“We can try to avoid making choices by doing nothing, but even that is a decision.” – Gary Collins (Thinkexist.com, 2006)
Most people would rather talk about something than make a decision about it. Your job as a facilitator is to help the group move from discussion to decision-making for those items that are necessary to the objective of the meeting. To help the group make good decisions, you must understand the following items prior to the meeting:
- What decisions are vital to the meeting? You may not know all of them, but you should be able to identify any key decisions that are required to meet your objective.
- What's the intended result of the decision? Is this a final decision that will be acted upon or is it a recommendation?
- What's the process that will be used to decide and what will happen if a decision can't be reached? The process should include the method (such as full consensus, majority vote, polling followed by discussion, re-polling, and so forth) as well as a defined process for handling those decisions that can't be made in the meeting.
Leading people to decisions can be one of your most difficult challenges as a facilitator. You can lead, but you can't force a group to decide. Nor is it your role as a PMF to make the decision for the group. So prior to making a decision, confirm with the group what it is they're deciding upon and validate that the appropriate decision-makers are in the meeting. If they are not in attendance, you have a couple of options. Capture an action item to follow up with the necessary decision-makers, or get the team to formulate a recommendation that can then be taken to the appropriate decision-makers.
Let's assume you have the decision-makers in the meeting. How can you lead them to make their decision? First, explore the problem or issue via facilitated dialogue. Allow open discussion and voicing of different opinions before asking participants to compare alternatives, summarize their ideas, and come to conclusion. Kaner (1996) referred to this as divergent thinking and convergent thinking. Refer to Exhibit 5 for a visual of the divergent and convergent thinking pattern.
As a facilitator, you're doing a balancing act. You'll need to document points that are relevant to the decision during the divergent thinking stage, and help the group evaluate ideas, summarize, and come to conclusion during the convergent stage of making decisions. There is no rule as to how much time this will or should take. Keeping the discussion focused, look for signs that all of the necessary information has been shared. Such signs may include a slowing of the dialogue or rehashing of points already made. Or you may limit the discussion based on available time. However you lead the group from divergence to convergence, you'll need to understand the context of the decision and drive the group accordingly.
Help the group be objective in their decision-making process by using techniques that minimize emotional or political factors. These techniques will not make the decision for the group; rather, they can help the group organize relevant information and provide clarity to support their decision. Helpful techniques include identification of prioritizing or ranking criteria, force field analysis, use of n-block diagrams or impact matrices, pros and cons lists, and gradients of agreement.
Remember that decision-making can be stressful, so provide a supportive atmosphere. Don't postpone decisions lightly or arbitrarily, but also don't rush a decision before it has been adequately discussed or if you don't have the right people present.
Deciding Between Alternatives
There are times when a group must make a decision between multiple options. There are several techniques that can be used to aid in this process: pros and cons list, nine-block diagram, or impact matrix. How do you know which technique to use? Each technique provides a different level of detail around the reasons for your decision, from minimal to very detailed. So you'll want to match the technique to the level of detail required to justify your decision.
The pros and cons list is simply that—a list of the reasons this option is best and an opposing list of risks or obstacles associated with the option. This list can be captured on two separate flip-chart pages, one for pros and one for cons. After listing all the pros and cons for each option, apply your agreed-upon decision-making method to determine which option to recommend or implement.
The nine-block diagram is a way of seeing how your alternatives compare in relation to two common factors that are important decision-making considerations (see Exhibit 6). This technique will rarely get you to a final decision, but it will help the group identify which two or three alternatives to raise to the top in relation to their criteria. To facilitate the creation of a nine-block diagram, ask the group to discuss and agree upon the placement of each alternative in one of the nine “cells.” The most important items will end up in the upper left cells. Once the diagram is complete, encourage the group to discuss the results to determine if they are reasonable.
The impact matrix provides a way to rank each alternative against a set of criteria (such as the project goals, desired improvement targets, RFP requirements, and so forth) (see Exhibit 7). This technique provides the most decisionmaking rationale and quickly surfaces basic disagreements, so they may be resolved up front. It forces a team to focus on the best solution or reasonable thing to do and reduces the chances of selecting someone's “pet project or solution.”
To facilitate development of an impact matrix, you need to work with the team to:
- Determine the criteria to compare each alternative against
- Rank each option against the criteria
- Assign scores to come up with the winner
- Discuss and validate the results.
Productive meetings don't just happen. We've all experienced differing versions of the “meeting nightmare,” where participants run wild and results are an illusion. But through the application of facilitation skills and techniques, we can tame the wild and achieve real results by:
- Determining if you have the right skills and capabilities to be an objective facilitator for the meeting.
- Ensuring the meeting is necessary to the project purpose and objectives.
- Targeting meeting attendance to those who add value to the outcomes, and giving them meeting expectations in advance so that they are prepared for productive participation.
- Using objectives, action items and a parking lot to keep the team focused on the topic at hand.
- Using your agenda, ground rules, time-boxing, and the nominal group technique to manage group dynamics and keep the team moving.
- Making sure everyone is on the same page by creating a scope table/frame and glossary.
- Helping the team make decisions efficiently by clarifying the intended result and determining a process ahead of time.
- Providing a structure for deciding between alternatives by using a pros and cons list, the nine-block diagram, or the impact matrix.