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Accelerate Meeting Results

Structured Facilitation Techniques That Anyone Can Use

The key to being an effective leader or manager is working with people. And for better or worse, the venue where most of us work with other people is in meetings. I find that most leaders and managers conduct meetings by pulling people together and starting a conversation about a particular topic. They may make good use of tools like agendas, but otherwise rely on the collective dialog skills of the group to achieve results. Dialog skills are crucial, but there are additional ways that leaders can engage teams and ensure high levels of participation, saving limited discourse time for those items that need it most.

Following are three simple techniques that I believe any leader or manager can add to his or her toolbox and apply in a meeting, particularly in teams that already function reasonably well. All three of these techniques are extensions of a “roundtable”, that is, they call upon each person to make a comment, in turn, around the table.

Technique #1: The Check-In - Get People Engaged

Simply put, each person in the group is asked to contribute a quick comment to “check in” and let the group know about his or her current status or state. This comment can be in response to a general question or can be an opportunity for people to say what’s been going on in their personal lives before they get down to work. This technique is particularly valuable at the beginning of a meeting, and is well worth establishing as a meeting ritual. For example, I’ve been on teams that wanted to value people beyond work roles but avoid being too intrusive, and started monthly meetings with each person making a one minute comment about what was going on in their personal life. Other teams practice “check-ins” about recent department events, or kudos for employees who have made important contributions that week. An initial check-in gives everybody a chance to exercise their voices. Once each person has spoken at least once, it lubricates the process so everyone feels comfortable contributing as the meeting progresses.

A check-in is also good in the middle of the meeting to evaluate the meeting process, and can be appropriate at the end of the meeting to either evaluate the meeting, or quickly confirm that everybody knows the next step.

Technique #2: The Key Issue - Getting Complex Issues on the Table

Almost everyone has experienced ineffective meetings where a group is called upon to address a complex situation. Someone brings up an issue, which is discussed, then someone brings up another issue, which is discussed, then someone brings up another issue…and so on until time or patience runs out. A more effective process is to identify key issues first, and use valuable meeting time to discuss the high priority items.

Use this technique to bring information out on the table in advance of starting in-depth discussions, particularly where there are multiple perspectives on complex issues.

At the meeting, provide index cards or post-it notes and ask everybody to write down a keyword, phrase or sentence for their most important issues (consider a limit of three to five issues). Do a roundtable where everybody can present their priorities, limiting comments to just a few minutes at most. A team of seven people can have everybody say what their three key points are – at one minute per point – and get all the priorities out on the table in less than half an hour.

Having the key points written down is helpful to keep people focused on what is most important. The cards or post-it-notes then become a record that allows the group to compare and organize all the points. Cards can then be arranged to determine how many issues are essentially similar and how many are unique. With all the “cards on the table” the group can visually organize the information into manageable categories and begin establishing priorities.

Technique #3: Do A Metric – Find Out Where People Stand

This simple roundtable asks everyone to give a metric about a particular topic. Rather than taking a simple vote of yes or no, you can increase effectiveness by asking “on a scale of 1-5, how on-board are you with this issue?” If everybody offers fours or fives, you know people are generally on board and you may be ready to move on. This is quite different than if you have a wide variety of responses where some are ones and some are fives.

This is also a useful technique to identify key issues from a large amount of material. I used this effectively with a planning board faced with the daunting task of making decisions following 30 program presentations, including each program’s goals and budget. After all the presentations were over, I asked the board to take just a few minutes to review each program and indicate their assessment by raised fingers – one, two or three – one indicating poor performance; two for average performance; and three meaning the program performed extremely well. Very quickly we were able to establish consensus on which programs were doing very well, which programs were doing poorly, and which ones generated a difference of opinion. Having quickly sorted what everyone agreed on, the limited time could be spend reviewing facts and information on programs needing additional discussion.

I find leaders and managers usually have experienced these deceptively simple “facilitation techniques” in facilitated groups many times, yet rarely employ these techniques in their own team leadership. Perhaps they believe conventional conversation should suffice, or worry that such tools will present as awkward, unnatural, or too controlling. Yet in reality, these techniques can greatly accelerate the results that a team is able to achieve in a meeting.

These three simple techniques – doing the check-in, getting key issues on the table, and taking a metric about where people stand – are valuable practices that can be beneficial even if done with less than perfection. One way to get started is to introduce them to a team as a trial. Say to the group, “Well, let’s try something.” People might feel it’s unnecessary at first, but often get into the spirit of the exercise very quickly and find that it moves the group along and saves a lot of time – something appreciated by all!

by Tom Stevens (c)2004
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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