February 10, 2012

Facilitation Friday #6: Balance Content and Process, Ideas and Action

Effective facilitation must manage (or balance content and process, as well as attention to both ideas and action. Individuals using a facilitative approach are concerned with both what the group is discussing or deciding (content) and how they are actually doing it (process). They appreciate and understand that different groups may need to use different processes to achieve different desired outcomes.

An important part of these efforts involves thoughtfully considering how the group might reach a certain result, and then designing the right mix between discussing ideas and deciding what actions to take.  The right content rushed through too quick a process is unlikely to lead to participants' truly owning any commitments made.  A process which honors and elicits significant individual contributions, but produces no decisions or actions, also would be unsatisfactory.

When designing a meeting or workshop agenda/content flow, facilitators must determine what seems like the right mix of discussion formats for (1) the outcomes specified, (2) the individuals who will be involved, and (3) the environment (session length, room set, placement in the day or conference schedule, etc.).  But, the facilitator also must determine alternative formats for each segment of the meeting or workshop that can be seamlessly introduced when the need to do so is displayed by the participants.   

Example: if a segment designed to be a large group discussion is producing silence and blank stares, breaking the content into multiple questions and assigning each to a small group for consideration might be a better approach to advance the conversation.  Such real-time calibration is the hallmark of a thoughtful facilitator.  This is critical.  The more options you prepare for in advance, the easier it is for you to make adjustments as needed.

Individuals enter meetings or workshops with their own expectations for what should occur in terms of both content and process.  It's helpful to clarify these expectations in advance, as well as share the agenda/design you've created and how it will help produce the outcomes for which you are facilitating.  In some cases, making discussion vs. decision-making segments explicit on the agenda will help some individuals feel confident their expectations will be met.

But just as you have to calibrate your efforts in real-time, so must you manage individuals' expectations on a recurring basis.  It's not at all unusual that when some individuals feel a discussion is "beating a dead horse," others will still be engaged and think there is more content to explore.  It's important to remember that as the facilitator, you are serving the entire group, not any on segment of it.  Whenever possible, you should simply help the group manage the different process and content expectations that are appearing:  "It seems some people are ready to move on to another topic.  How do others feel?"

That's why the balance beam is a perfect metaphor.  For a facilitator, complete steadiness and security is unlikely, so you have to maintain your own internal sense of gravity to keep from falling down on the job.

Every Friday in 2012, I will post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

More Resources

A brief post offering a different metaphor for thinking more about this balance in the context of being a workshop presenter
A design grid (PDF) to help you plan out a meeting or workshop agenda, content flow, and format options.
A presentation skills article (PDF) that can help you prepare to be present, not just present.

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