In my experience as meeting-goer (and I have to admit I attend meetings way less than I facilitate them), it seems a number of standard mistakes happen by default. These mistakes really cripple any attempt to turn the meetings into useful gatherings and meshings of ideas, people and energies.
These mistakes tend to appear particularly in meetings where there is no facilitator involved. Yet it’s clear that not every meeting can be facilitated (for lack of time, money, thought about it etc.).
So here are 10 advices that can help anyone running an un-facilitated meeting to hit the mark more surely – and for clarity by meeting I mean gatherings of 2 hours or more:
- Work with a team, from the design phase. Even if you don’t involve a facilitator, you will need to make sure you have people that help you make sure: all logistics is running smoothly (brains don’t work on empty stomachs or when payment grudges are getting in the way); all inputs, presentations etc. are collected and harvested; the event is properly communicated before, during and after (including social media, reporting etc.); someone is there to relay you when you want to join the conversation etc.
- Think carefully about the topics you want to cover and outcomes for each of these topics. If you’re not clear what your key topics are and what you want to achieve for each of these, you might start on the wrong foot from the get-go… And knowing which topics you want to address also means knowing what your ‘content boundaries’ are, i.e. what you definitely WON’T address at your event…
- Think carefully about the type of meeting you want to shoot at. You may be interested in mostly passing on information, collecting feedback or you might be aiming at a more complex group interaction (e.g. to explore new grounds, to make complex decisions etc.). Being clear about the type of meeting you’re actually getting at will inform your design and clarify the group dynamics you may expect from your attendees…
- Think carefully about the content balance, ie. the balance between the content presented and the capacity of your participants to process and digest that information.
I tend to apply (more or less) the following rule of thumb: For the time of each presentation count 3 times as much time for its digestion (whether through Q&A or group work). So for a 6-hour day of work, having more than 1.5 hours of presentations will not really provide the participants a real opportunity to fully digest that content.
- If you have many inputs, consider alternatives to PowerPoint presentations. I listed quite a few here. You are the one in charge, so you can impose certain restrictions on the way people are sharing their inputs. In a Botswana meeting I facilitated for my current organisation, we managed to avoid Powerpoint recitals, and in an older KM4Dev annual meeting we even banned Powerpoint and ended up with very creative presentation formats.
- Consider the kind of venue and set-up you are hosting the meeting at. Pillars are big no-no’s, acoustics matters, and the chair set up also has a strong influence on the group dynamics e.g. if you want to stimulate participation and interaction: Classroom style < U-shaped table set-up < cabaret style < semi-circle or full circle… There’s much more to say about this, but know that if you want your participants to engage, your seating arrangement will have a hidden but very strong influence on whether engagement happens or not.
- Be aware of power dynamics and attend to it. There are always more powerful, or confident, or fast thinkers, who tend to monopolise the conversation. It’s great to get their inputs (they are the first ones to talk so they model an active behaviour) but your event shouldn’t be limited to their inputs, but to as many peoples’ as possible. For this, you may need to try out different formats (e.g. small group interactions, forced listening techniques such as fishbowls, used in the interest of the less talkative). In fact this is a good matter for a future post of its own (watch this space!).
- Don’t shoot for perfect time management, but for a perfect conversation. Because I have low tolerance for long-winded speakers, for a very long time I had the feeling that having a meeting follow the program and finish in time was one of the key traits of successful meetings. I have learned through my training and work with Sam Kaner and Community at Work to be open to the creative force of conflicts and to make space for conversations when they are hitting an important point, at the expense of time management… But of course it is in those sensitive moments that it is most useful to have a facilitator at hand…
Adopt a continual improvement cycle: Gather feedback (check), think and review (act), adapt (plan), try it (do). In other words, as Dwight D. Eisenhower would say: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” and so you need to be prepared to leave your plan aside and to adapt your approach to your participants. This means also carefully creating a space for them to express their ideas for improving your meeting!
- Have fun! Have as much fun as Golden State Warriors do on the basketball court! It is the sports team that is having the most fun on the planet and they show fun is also the key to (MUCH) better performance. If you’re not having a bit of fun at your meeting, how can you expect others to? And if no one is having fun, are you really in the best conditions to make this meeting a useful and productive one?
Does this make sense to you?
Yes? Then give it a try!
No? Then let me and us know what you would do differently!
And in any case, if you are not sure how to go about your own events, or if these are (expectedly) particularly complex or difficult, call upon a specialist: facilitators are there to help you do all of the above – and a lot more – in the best possible way, and help the entire group do their best thinking.
Wondering where to find that support? ILRI’s engagement and collaboration team can help 🙂