Facilitation Friday #21: How to Wind Down

Few things are more unsatisfying than when a well-facilitated meeting or workshop fizzles at the end in fitful dribs and drabs.  To avoid this phenomenon, you must intentionally design the winding down stage of the facilitation and allow more time for it on the agenda. 

The closing section of a facilitated effort should include a carefully calibrated mix of attention to both the content and process of what just took place.  This generally includes:
  1. Addressing any items placed in the parking lot for later consideration.
  2. Reviewing decisions made and next steps along with the accountability for action.  So what did we decide today and what happens next?  What is to be shared, with whom, and how?
  3. Reflecting on the effort and capturing key takeaways (individually and/or collectively) to guide subsequent efforts.  What have we learned about having critical conversations and making strategic decisions that would be useful to remember the next time we have to do so?
  4. And more specifically, using any group norms established at the start as an evaluation framework for the subsequent conversations that occurred: How did we do in honoring the agreements we made to guide our work?
  5. Celebrating the group and reinforcing the relationships among its members. The longer the group has been (or will be) together, the more critical this is.
Too often these critical items are not addressed at all or are done in a rushed and inadequate manner. As a result, long-term group capability and capacity is not increased, nor is the sense of community among the group's members or their satisfaction with how time was spent.  For a one-day session, I initially block 60 minutes for closure-related activities. 

How to decide the amount of time and what to include

A good general guideline is that the longer the session, the longer the closure segment.  A companion rule of thumb is that the longer the participants have been/will be together, the longer the closure segment.  Why?  The former has more work requiring closure and the latter has a greater depth of relationships and connections that call for closure.

Consider the final meeting of a task force that has worked together for the past 12 months.  Individuals may want to briefly express their own thoughts about the group and its work, so you need to include a process for doing so in your final segment.  Putting some brief structure to the effort can keep it meaningful, yet focused.  Let's each take 60 seconds and share what we've most appreciated about our time together these past 12 months.  Really tight on time, but want each person to share?  What's the one word that captures your feelings about our time together?  It generally is helpful to include a time limit.  Otherwise, the initial speaker will set the stage for the length that all others will often mirror.

When the time available or the group size does not allow for such individual expression, you might share a story, poem, quote, or video clip that articulates and embodies what members of the group might say.  Having a few "standard" closing expressions in your facilitator toolbox is critical.

What about a one-time workshop, say a 90-minute session at a conference?  Here the facilitation emphasis likely has been on content, not the relationships among the participants, so the closure effort should do the same.  At minimum it should invite participants to distill their key takeaways from the session, how they see applying them to their respective efforts, and with which colleagues they will share them.  This helps build what Donald Schon calls the reflective practitioner.

If you are facilitating an ongoing group such as an internal staff team, a committee, or a learning community, your efforts fall somewhere between these two extremes I just described.  As a result the amount of time you spend on the closure segment of an individual effort will reflect the overall organizational context and culture in which it occurs.  You need to determine how to wind down any individual session so that it helps wind up whatever will happen next.

The critical question for the facilitator always is this:

For the group I am facilitating and the work we are doing together, what is the appropriate mix and length of activities to facilitate closure (temporary or permanent) to both our relationships and our work?

And as always, the effective facilitator identifies and prepares multiple closure activity options in order to allow for real-time flexibility based on the time available, the group's energy and needs, and the meeting or workshop environment.

Winding down a major leadership development or learning experience requires significant attention to re-entry.  A future post will address ideas and insights for this special type of winding down.

Every Friday in 2012, I 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.

I'll be leading an open registration full-day course on The Art of Facilitation: How to Maximize Individuals' Contributions and Commitments on Tuesday, August 21, in Washington, DC, for the American Society of Association Executives.  Learn more/register here.