Improve meeting productivity, communication, and outcomes by planning a three - part facilitation strategy

Tara Denton Holwegner, PMP, CPLP and Sherri Large, MMC, PMP

Learning Subject Matter Expert, Life Cycle Engineering Business Manager, Life Cycle Engineering

To ensure projects are completed on time and within the specified budget, a project manager must execute the tasks defined in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition. These tasks include developing a project management plan; monitoring, controlling, and reporting project work; balancing schedule, cost, and quality; and identifying and responding to project risks. Executing these tasks yields a technically sound project, but that's not enough. To meet project baselines of cost, schedule, and scope, and influence the business, a project manager needs to be capable of communicating and facilitating meetings effectively.

In this article, we organize common meeting facilitation techniques into a three-part facilitation strategy to help project managers practice facilitation skills that bring teams to productivity faster, improve communication, sustain motivation, and maximize future meeting outcomes. We will also introduce a facilitation plan template to prevent potential resistance and common pitfalls derived from a detailed agenda concept featured in Ingrid Bens’ book Facilitating with Ease (2012).

A Three-Part Facilitation Strategy

What does facilitation mean to the project manager?

For the project manager, facilitation means to consult, design, and manage a process to meet the goals of a group (Project Facilitation 101, p. 5). In the PMBOK® Guide, facilitation occurs in the Initiating and Planning Process Groups when developing the project charter and project management plan, collecting requirements, and defining the project scope (Project Management Institute, 2013).

Facilitation focuses on the process to achieve the goals of the group. It is how the meeting's topics are discussed, not what is discussed (Bens, 2012, pp. 7–10).

Do we need a facilitation strategy?

A project manager must be both a decision maker and a collaborative process manager. Many gifted project managers struggle to bridge the gap between the technical duties of project integration management (Project Management Institute, 2013) and the process focus of a facilitator. What they don't realize is that they need facilitator skills to connect with their team, keep people focused on objectives, remain inclusive, summarize inputs, and provoke follow-up action (including funding resources). Not only do these skills impact individual meetings, they impact the overall success of a project. When meeting objectives are not achieved, additional meetings and follow-up are needed, which cost time and money. Further, when the project manager lacks the skills needed to keep his meeting on topic, changes to the project can occur, resulting in scope creep.

When does a project manager have to put on the facilitator hat? According to the PMBOK® Guide, meetings typically fall into one of these three categories: information exchange; brainstorming, option evaluation, or design; and decision making (Project Management 2013, p. 84). All three require a facilitation strategy to meet objectives. When applied in the real world, facilitation is used in a variety of project activities including:

  • Delivering compelling and persuasive communication to leadership and stakeholders,
  • Collecting requirements and leading productive product design sessions,
  • Presenting information in a meaningful way to a non-technical audience,
  • Managing cross-functional projects, and
  • Conducting project status meetings and lessons-learned sessions.

To complicate matters, a project manager has limited time to reach meeting goals. With all these constraints, what's a management professional to do?

The good news is a facilitation strategy and plan can prevent common problems and steer meetings into productive, results-producing events. A strategy will bring your team to productivity faster, improve communication, sustain motivation, and maximize outcomes of future meetings. One common problem solved by a facilitation strategy is inefficiency. When the meeting facilitator struggles to collect ideas, team productivity languishes and valuable time is wasted. Another common pitfall solved by a facilitation strategy and plan is disengaged participants. When you select meeting goals and structure activities to meet them, you invite only relevant stakeholders and provide an energetic communication platform for those who care about the meeting topic.

A facilitation strategy is comprised of three parts: an opening, a process, and a closing. Each part has key elements that make it an inclusive and collaborative process to solve problems and make group decisions. It may sound counterintuitive, but having a good plan is the best way to ensure flexibility when it suits the needs of the meeting.

To stay on task, a facilitation plan is a tool to capture your strategy in detail and can be referenced during the meeting.

Part One: Opening Your Meeting

An opening is how you begin your meeting and has three aims: (1) connect participants to each other, (2) connect participants to the meeting purpose, and (3) achieve buy-in from the group to drive toward meeting goals (Pike, 2011, p. 9). When done well, the opener sets a cooperative tone, encourages participation, and prevents resistance from side-tracking your meeting (Pike & Solem, 2000). Openings can range from 30 seconds to 30 minutes, depending on the meeting duration and type of interaction needed between participants (i.e., short meetings have short openers; meetings with sub-group tasks might open with a subgroup-forming opener).

When selecting an opener, ask the following questions to gauge effectiveness. These criteria are derived from Bob Pike Group's six keys to open a creative session (Pike, 2011, p. 9):

  1. Does it break preoccupation? Your participants have a busy inbox demanding their attention. Your opening should prompt the participant to pay attention and think about the meeting topic.
  2. Is it connected to the meeting content? Time is precious. Your opening should be relevant to the meeting topic or find one that is.
  3. Does it facilitate networking? The opening should connect the learners to each other and the meeting purpose.
  4. Does it maintain self-esteem? To be productive and encourage individual contributions, each person should feel their opinion is valued and that they will not be ridiculed or retaliated against.

When opening your next meeting, consider trying one of these examples.

  • Sentence completion opener: Prepare a list of sentences related to the topic with a key word missing. Participants fill in the blanks. For example, “Getting to the root cause of problems is _____ in our organization.” Or “The best way to get people to use the new timesheet system is _____.” (adapted from Pike & Solem, 2000, p. 18)
  • Ground rules opener: Draw two columns with a smiling face and a frowning face (adapted from Pike & Solem, 2000, p. 28). Ask participants to describe characteristics of good meetings and bad meetings. Get agreement from participants that the group will focus on practicing behaviors in support of a good meeting.
  • Twitter opener: In five words or less, describe how you feel about ____ (meeting topic). This activity is a personal favorite created by Tara Denton Holwegner and published in The Book of Road-Tested Activities (Biech, 2011, p. 389).

Part Two: Choose a Meeting Process

The meeting process is the method by which you meet goals. Are you trying to collect requirements, review deliverables, brainstorm root causes to problems, consider countermeasures, come to consensus, make a decision, or process feedback? Selecting a meeting process is the core of your facilitation strategy and requires pre-meeting thought. After considering your meeting goal, back into the type of participation you want from participants. Do you want to capture large amounts of feedback to categorize or prioritize? Do you need to analyze data sets and draw conclusions? Different facilitation strategies can be employed depending on your goal and the participation you solicit.

Some examples of meeting process structures (Bens, 2012, pp. 163–204):

  • Organized problem-solving tools:
    • Fishbone – organize problem contributors into man, method, machine, and material categories
    • 5-Why – state the problem and repeatedly ask “why?” to surface contributing factors and causes
    • Sequence of events – step through the event like a detective, investigating the sequence of actions that led up to the problem
  • Organized brainstorming tools:
    • Affinity diagrams – organize contributions into categories that surface organically.
    • Gallery Walk – set up flip charts with different topics, problems, complaints, etc. Give participants post-it notes to document their responses and post feedback anonymously.
    • Force-Field analysis – draw two columns and solicit opposing viewpoints. For example: good/bad elements of a product review, for/against certain investment options, or the pros/cons of a proposed change.
    • Multi-voting is a generally accepted way to assign priority within a group of items. You can ask people to score each item, pick the top three, or provide a weighted scale to quantifiably narrow down your choices.

Part 3: Closing Your Meeting

Meeting closure is how you end the meeting after capturing decisions, action items, responsibilities, and follow-up dates. A meeting effectiveness check is a commonly used project management and facilitation technique that helps you assess the meeting's efficacy and improve future meetings. The effectiveness check can also be used during the meeting as a “check-in” to ensure things are going as planned, or to “spot treat” a meeting complication. Administering surveys as people walk out of the meeting or on a break typically get more participation than online surveys.

Rate your meeting in three to five areas of concern, such as those mentioned in Bens’ book, Facilitating with Ease (2012, p. 155):

  1. Outcomes – did we achieve what we needed to?
  2. Organization – how effective was the meeting structure?
  3. Time management – how well did we use our time?
  4. Participation – did we make sure everyone was involved?
  5. Action plans – are our action plans clear and doable?

A visual way to capture meeting effectiveness feedback is to post the questions on a flip chart with a linear rating scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) and have meeting participants put an “x” or a checkmark on the line to anonymously rate their responses (Ladd, 2015).

Facilitation Plan: Document Your Facilitation Strategy

Once you have defined an opening, process, and closing for your meeting, capture the details in a facilitation plan. A facilitation plan is a detailed, “step-by-step” document that details how you will execute your opener, process, and closing to guide the group toward achieving their goal. The facilitation plan is similar to a meeting agenda, but provides much more detail, and is only intended for use by the facilitator. The facilitation plan can prevent potential resistance and common meeting pitfalls because it allows you to remain in control of your meeting. Documenting your meeting plan in advance will keep the meeting from going off topic, solidify ground rules, and minimize the potential for strong personalities to take over the meeting. Because you are planning facilitation techniques in advance, and according to the goals of the meeting, you can effectively achieve the desired meeting outcomes.

Common organizational structures found in facilitation books like Facilitating with Ease (Bens, 2012, pp. 205–226) show a table divided into sections for your notes, the duration of that part of the meeting and any materials or items you need to use during that part of the meeting. The facilitation plan can be printed or stored on a tablet to reference during the meeting.

An example of a facilitation plan to collect design requirements is shown in Exhibit 1. As needed, additional details can be added, such as meeting date, time, location, etc.:


Exhibit 1: Example facilitation plan.

The facilitation plan is a roadmap for an organized, productive meeting that incorporates three key meeting parts: (1) an opening that connects participants to each other, connects them to the meeting purpose, and encourages participation (Pike & Solem, 2000); (2) a meeting process vehicle to organize meeting input and drive toward meeting goals; and (3) a closing to gauge the effectiveness of your meeting.

In Exhibit 1, the facilitator chose to open the meeting by establishing ground rules. Ground rules can be used to prevent typical meeting faux pas such as interrupting, judging others’ ideas, leaving the meeting early, or checking phones and email. After the first break, roving flip charts was used as a way to collect requirements. This is a controlled way to gather many ideas in a short amount of time.

A project manager should use a facilitation strategy and plan to practice valuable facilitation skills during project meetings, leadership briefings, and cross-functional efforts that include technical and non-technical stakeholders. These tools can help bridge the gap between the technical duties of a project manager and the process focus of a facilitator, yielding a well-rounded Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification holder poised to gain support for their efforts.

Bens, I. (2012). Facilitating with ease! (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Biech. E. (2011). The book of road-tested activitie. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Bob Pike Group. (2011). Train the trainer boot camp. Eden Prairie, MN: Creative Training Techniques, Inc.

Ladd, M. & Waite, C. (2015). Project facilitation 101: Facilitation skills for project managers [Live instruction].

Pike, B. & Solem, L. (2000). 50 creative training openers & energizers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Project Facilitation 101. (n.d.). Facilitation skills for project managers. Participant Manual. Charleston, SC: issaFacilitation & PM One, LLC.

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

© 2015, Tara Denton Holwegner and Sherri Large
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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