Sometimes, an ineffective meeting can be more damaging than no meeting at all. But, if you're not the person in charge of facilitating the meeting, how can you help keep the group and the meeting in line? In this article, Ellen Gottesdiener offers some suggestions for both facilitators and non-facilitators that may help ease some of your meeting frustrations.
Do you ever feel frustrated that you can't intervene during group gatherings gone astray? How can you take action when you're not the one in charge? Do you wonder how you can "lead from behind" to improve the quality of your community collaboration?
Here are some suggestions for making meetings or work sessions work better for everyone.
The Writing on the Wall
We humans first communicated with each other on cave walls. Making your content visible on walls for everyone to see and react to is probably one of the most powerful ways for groups to communicate. You can take advantage of this strong visual orientation by becoming the group's recorder. In this way, you can assist the facilitator (and perhaps act as co-facilitator).
To take this action, be prepared with flipchart paper, wall-friendly tape, and markers. At the meeting, record key summary points, decisions, actions, and a parking lot (a place to store topics you want to cover later), perhaps on separate posters. Be sure you honor people's words. Don't paraphrase without getting permission.
At the same time, you can facilitate the discussion by checking in with the group on anything you write. Here some examples of questions you should ask:
- "So can I summarize that by writing ...?"
- "Can I capture that idea by writing ...?"
- "Looking at what I just wrote, does that summarize your point?"
- "Can you headline that so I can capture it on our poster?"
Depending on your relationship with the facilitator or meeting leader, you might ask permission to do this ahead of time. Or, you might turn to the meeting leader (if there is one) and ask whether it's OK for you to record key points from the session.
Do You See What I See?
One of my most profound learning experiences as a facilitator was the time I acted as an observer rather than a participant or a facilitator. (My mentor suggested I do this because I felt lost not being in the role of the facilitator!)
Being an observer forced me to focus strictly on studying the group dynamics, watching the flow of interactions, making a point of noticing nonverbal behavior, and sensing the ebb and flow of energy in the group. When I started to see a pattern, I then shared my observation with the group without suggestion or judgment.
For example, I would say, "I noticed when we were discussing X, most people made comments and were looking at each other. But when the topic of Y came up, some people leaned back, others kept glancing toward the clock or door, and there seemed to be less energy in the room."
You can transform your observations into meta-observations by inviting feedback on the observation itself. You do that by stating the observation, following it with your own inference or assumption, and then checking it out with the group. For example, you could say, "When we were discussing X, I noticed more people spoke up. I'm guessing that the topic of X is more important to everyone than Y. Do I have that right?"
By noticing and pointing out specific, observable behavior, you enable the group to "process its process" (what we might call the meta-process). Most of us participate in gatherings without thinking about the group process itself, let alone how to increase its effectiveness.
Acting as an observer and sharing your observations with the group helps the group to process its process and thereby improve it. These practices also increase your own skills in being a facilitator, because effective facilitators are expert observers.
Purpose, Products, and Process
If you are not the facilitator and the meeting has no agenda or stated purpose, ask for them ahead of time. If you do not get them but choose to attend anyway, interject early on by asking, "What is the expected outcome of our time together?" Help guide the answers by asking about the meeting's purpose, products, and process.
When people begin to respond with these questions, stand up and write them on poster paper with the label "Outcomes." If posters aren't feasible, ask to take notes (on your laptop, if you have one with you, or by hand if not), which you'll send out after the session.
Having the outcomes posted on the wall will keep everyone focused on what the group needs to produce. When you hear off-topic discussions, you can point to the outcomes poster and ask, "How does this discussion get us to our outcomes?"
CARES from Your Chair
You don't have to be the facilitator to use the techniques of an effective facilitator. From where you sit, you can take specific actions to help the participants improve their process. Here are some tips, gathered under the acronym CARES (clarify, ask, reflect, explore, summarize).
Clarify: Check for understanding by asking a question, such as: "Are you saying you are concerned about whether this requirements should be in scope or not?"; or "Earlier you said X, and now I hear you saying Y, and these seem in conflict. Can you clarify that?"; or simply "Do I hear you saying ...?"
Ask: Well-timed questions can have a powerful effect on a group process and promote shared understanding. For example, ask process questions to help redirect a group gone astray: "Is this topic relevant to achieving our planned outcome?" or "Is that a topic we might put on our parking lot?" Focus questions help elicit specific information. When you ask, "What are some of the key pieces of information that are used to make that decision?" you will obtain a directed list that's relevant to the topic at hand.
Context-free questions (Gause and Weinberg, 1989), such as "What problem does this software/process/requirement solve?" or "What problems could this software/process/requirement create?" expand the community's thinking about the nature of the project, situation, problem, solution, or requirements. Reflective meta questions (Gause and Weinberg, 1989) promote introspection in the group. Asking the following helps the group think about their collaborative thinking: "Do the questions we're asking about product requirements relevant?"; "Are we the right people to answer these questions?"; or "Are there other questions we should be asking?"
Reflect: Effective groups continually check on their own process. Don't wait until the end of the meeting or session to make effective use of self-reflection. Ask: "How do you all think we are doing in making progress here today?"; "Can I do a process check and ask everyone if they think we're heading in the right direction with our time today?"; or "I'm curious whether this session is productive for us right now. What do you think?"
Explore: Don't assume that everyone understands or agrees about the topic at hand. Some participants aren't vocal, or their nonverbal behavior is ambiguous. Do their folded arms indicate contemplation or disagreement? Does foot tapping indicate impatience, anxiety, or too much caffeine? Don't guess where they stand, and don't assume you know what they know. Ask!
Open-ended, exploratory questions probe for more information. Posing questions like "I am curious to hear what concerns or suggestions some of the folks who haven't chimed in yet might have. Would you share that with us?" or "Can you explain further the impact of X on our organization?" can unleash powerful information sharing.
Summarize: Accelerate the group's process by wrapping up a topic with summary statements or questions. It also helps groups move toward closure. Start by making a statement, such as "To wrap up this discussion: Everyone agrees the scope should not include X, and we need to revise our scope model" or "I hear us agreeing to ask the customer to help us develop user acceptance tests in the next iteration."
If you've tried these actions to no effect or have asked permission of the person in charge to do so but have been turned down, then your last resort is not to participate. In the end, we are responsible for making optimal use of our time to serve our end customers. If you can be more productive doing other work than attending an ineffective group session and you have honestly explained your reasoning for not attending, then you are acting in a professional manner. Indeed, your example might inspire your colleagues to follow suit.
Collaborating teams are comprised of individuals who take personal responsibility not only for their own behavior, but also for promoting healthy collaboration of the group itself. That includes ensuring valuable use of the group's time together. We have all heard about the staggering cost of ineffective meetings. We don't need to be victims or contribute to the waste. If the process is not working and you're not the designated facilitator or leader, you can still take corrective action. These suggestions are small but powerful ways to affect your project community.
- Gause, Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg, Exploring Requirements: Quality Before Design. Dorset House, 1989
- Gottesdiener, Ellen, Requirements by Collaboration: Workshops for Defining Needs. Addison-Wesley, 2003.
- Tabaka, Jean, Collaboration Explained: Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders. Addison-Wesley, 2006.