Many of us are seeing a return to in-person and hybrid meetings following the COVID pandemic. It might be an ideal time to remind ourselves of the importance of planning and preparation for the meetings we lead and facilitate.
Rarely are meetings I facilitate or attend perfect. However, planning for meetings we lead and facilitate provides sufficient rewards. I can recall meetings I have facilitated when something went wrong. Maybe I lost the group’s attention, or the group didn’t understand my instructions for an exercise, or they responded with blank stares at a question I asked. Maybe the process I designed was not producing the results I expected. Or maybe I didn’t prepare the necessary handout or flipchart.
Most if not all these problems can be traced back to my ineffective facilitation planning and preparation.
In response to the problems and challenges I have described, I found a very helpful approach developed by Jeff Bracken, an organizational effectiveness consultant. Jeff’s approach is not a linear, generic cookie-cutter template that applies to all facilitation situations. However, it does provide a clear process and useful guidelines that you can customize to your unique requirements.
The Eight Ps for effective facilitation planning and preparation are: perspective, purpose, people, product, place, process, practice, and personal preparation. Following is an overview of each.
Developing an understanding of the group’s purpose, mission, vision, goals, and context is critical. Questions you might ask as you think about gaining perspective for facilitating a group or team:
- What is the purpose and mission of the group or organization?
- What is the organizational structure?
- How are decisions made?
- What does the leadership look like?
It is essential to understand what the group or organization views as a successful meeting or event before determining the detailed requirements, specific deliverables, and how to measure results. Questions you might ask as you determine your group’s needs and expectations:
- What are their ideal desired results or outcomes?
- What do we need to achieve in this meeting or during this event to meet their needs?
- What type of atmosphere do we need to create in order to accomplish the results they want?
It is common not to fully identify and include the important people who need to participate in an event or meeting. Once you have mapped out who and why people need to be in attendance, here are some additional questions to ask:
- What are the conflicts?
- What are the biases, preconceived ideas, and other potential barriers to success?
While this may appear to be similar to purpose, it is more specific. Purpose is why we are having the meeting, product is what is produced as a result of the meeting. Questions to consider:
- What will be delivered?
- What is the most important thing we need to accomplish?
- What documentation do we want to walk out of the room with?
This step is probably most overlooked by inexperienced facilitators. Thinking that a room or space will do is simply not true or effective. Don’t leave the identification and selection of the physical space to someone else. This is an important step in virtual meetings as well, even though the space will be different. Questions to help determine your space needs are:
- How many participants will be attending?
- Are there any special needs for those participating?
- What special equipment is needed, such as computers, internet access, flipcharts, and wall space?
Once you have considered the above five Ps, you are in a solid position to design a process that fits your group or organization’s unique situation and needs. There are numerous processes that can be designed for different results, such as decision-making, improvement, problem-solving, strategic planning, etc.
I usually start with a clear facilitation agenda that provides clear guidance on the individual items needing attention, time allocations, and expected outcome. Then, I select tools such as activities, questions, and exercises for each agenda item. Questions I consider when designing a process:
- Does the agenda item need dissemination, discussion, or decision (this three Ds approach helps me determine what type of tool to use)?
- What is the best flow for the agenda?
- How much time is needed for each item and what tools can be used effectively for the allocated time?
I will admit, I am not the best at practicing, or doing a dry run of the process before my facilitation. Yet, this is a very important step. Usually when I do practice, I identify areas that need adjustments or things I may have missed. Visualizing and rehearsing the meeting, anticipating potential problems, and preparing appropriate contingency plans is essential.
On the day of the meeting or event, arrive before the participants. Test your equipment and make sure all your materials are ready. Finally, take a few minutes for yourself to check your appearance and visualize yourself facilitating a successful meeting.
8. Personal preparation
If you are not personally ready to perform, your participants will know it. This encompasses being mentally, emotionally, and physically ready to perform. Something I try to do before large facilitation events is to exercise the morning of the event. While exercising, I visualize the event and the different parts of the agenda. The exercise also prepares me mentally and physically. I find that when I facilitate, I am standing and walking almost the entire time.
In my journey as a facilitator, I have learned that utilizing these Eight Ps of effective facilitation planning and preparation make all the difference between a poor and unproductive meeting and one that is inspiring, motivating, fun and productive.
My hope is that as we return to more in-person and hybrid meetings in the coming weeks and months, we make the most of our time together since we never know when it will be taken away from us again in the future.
Jeff Bracken, Eight Ps of Effective Facilitation Planning and Preparation, The IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation, Best Practices from the Leading Organization in Facilitation Edited by Sandy Schuman, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA 2005.