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  • Writer's pictureVankita Brown

And So It Happened …

As I’ve mentioned before, this blog is about what I’ve learned through my successes and my failures. Often we learn the most from our failures. Here is one such time.

I was contacted by an office director about facilitating a meeting for her team. The purpose of the meeting was to develop priorities for the upcoming fiscal year. It included a small group of seven human resource managers.

In preparation for the meeting I was to facilitate, I held a pre-meeting consultation with the director to go over the usual - goals, dynamics, number of attendees, etc. The director explained that she could facilitate, but she wanted to fully participate in the meeting. This made complete sense to me, as it is sometimes hard to perform dual roles of being a participant and a facilitator. Admittedly however, there was a really brief moment when I had a slight out of body experience and my other self gave me the side eye as to say, “Why did she say that.” This would later prove to be a moment of foreshadowing. After a temporary moment with my celestial self and getting the relevant details, I set off to design a great meeting.

Since the meeting was scheduled to last an eight-hour work day, and in keeping with the rule of thumb - an hour of preparation time for every hour facilitated - I spent a day or so contemplating and researching appropriate ways for the group to distill down top priorities. Finally, I drafted a blueprint for what I thought the session should look like.

Icebreaker, check!

Discussion activity, check!

Prioritize activity, check!

I met the director again to review and get reactions, edits, changes, etc. to the agenda. During the meeting, we reviewed the agenda and talked through a couple of the ideas I had for ice breakers, discussion topics, and an exercise for paring down the final set of priorities. After a bit of, “How about this instead” and “Perhaps we move this here,” we finalized the agenda and I went about my merry way.

On the morning of the meeting, I greeted everyone as they entered the cozy conference room. As usual, I sat out candy and toys (nothing gets a meeting going like the devil - SUGAR!! and who doesn’t love to play with a Rubik's cube).

The director opened the meeting by reminding her team of the purpose and what the group would accomplish that day. She handed it off to me and I discussed what my role would be and walked us through the agenda. Next, I reviewed a few pre-populated ground rules, and invited the participants to add some as well. We then moved into the ice breaker to get the group warmed up and in a position to start the deeper discussions.

The director gave a brief presentation to the group to review the prior year’s progress and to update the team on her priorities. I then led the group in a discussion about their respective priorities and an exercise to map those priorities to the strategic objectives developed by their office leadership. Once that was all completed, the group broke for lunch. It was during the break where the office director told me that she had another plan for the next part of the meeting. She explained that she and one of her staff wanted to go over X,Y,Z, (it really didn’t matter at this point)!

So, after lunch the session began and from that point, it was no longer a facilitated session.

As they all began to work around me, I sat there thinking, “Clearly I am in The Twilight Zone.” I bore witness as the director and one of her staff worked through a not-so-exciting spreadsheet (Yikes!).

It was at this point where hindsight became 20/20. I reflected on our first meeting and recalled her words clearly, “I could facilitate the meeting,” she said. But this time I heard the words with new meaning. I should have paid more attention to that earlier premonition. It was crystal clear, she had wanted to facilitate the meeting all along.

During the last half of the meeting as the team continued to work, there were times when I offered my opinion about their internal work processes. The suggestions and observations I pointed out seemed very helpful, but this was not my role. Reflecting on it now, I probably crossed a line into being a participant. But honestly, I think I felt lost and was trying to find ways that I could get the process back on track. But alas that never happened. I left that meeting feeling like it was a complete waste of my time when it was over.

As I stated earlier, there is a lesson in every perceived failure, and the lessons from this experience were:

Be clear on need

In this case, what the office director really wanted was a meeting moderator, not a facilitator. While the two may seem similar, there are distinct differences. Let’s do a really quick definition check.

A meeting moderator is someone who presides over a discussion. For example, someone who chairs a meeting is a moderator. This person opens the meeting, and ensures that each agenda item is addressed. At times when appropriate, they might call for a vote on an item or issue. Finally, they will adjourn the meeting.

A facilitator is someone who guides a group through a design process, sometimes using activities, exercises and discussion for the group to arrive at its goals. For example, a facilitator would design a specific process for a strategic meeting where the goal would be to develop a strategic plan.

Understanding the need up front dictates how the meeting will flow, and can save a lot of unnecessary wasted time.

Be clear on intention

In the words of God Mother to the world, Ms. Oprah Winfrey, be clear on your intention. The director warned me, but I did not listen. She actually wanted to facilitate the meeting. Be cautious when someone says they can do it themselves because sometimes that means they will. Clarify roles and negotiate what they look like if you sense the host or team lead might really want to drive while you serve as copilot.

Allow for flexibility

The change in the agenda and approach threw me and I did have time to adjust. And frankly, I was not prepared to adjust. I made no contingency plans for a meeting hijack. Facilitation is all about being nimble and adaptable, because humans are unpredictable. So, while having a plan is really important, do make room for serendipity.

To end on a positive note, perhaps the experience ended up being exactly what the team and I needed. After all, facilitation happens in many diverse ways and although I went in thinking my practice would look one way, it ended up being something else. In the end, the group accomplished what they needed to and perhaps the director gained more confidence to facilitate future meetings. As for me, I learned a few lessons to add to my toolbox and to manage my own expectations.

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