Facilitation Friday #23: Going in Different Directions

What's a facilitator to do when individuals in a group start going in different directions?

This is a common situation you definitely should plan on managing.  It's generally benign, but once in a while a few individuals band together to try and hijack the meeting agenda.  In those moments, I often just call attention to what's happening:  "Alan and Johnna seems to have a strong interest in focusing on XXX today.  How do the rest of you feel about that in relation to the agenda for our time together?" 

In my experience the group is pretty effective at telling them now is not the time.  I then invite Alan and Johnna to bring their item up at the end of the meeting so we can determine how and when it can be addressed.

Here are a few more common reasons that different directions surface and how you might handle each of them.

Lack of clarity on the reason for the conversation

Why are we here?  What are we supposed to be doing?  Whether it is an internal team meeting or a small group conversation as part of a convention workshop, sometimes people aren't clear on the purpose or the instructions for why they are there and what is supposed to happen.  Restated the purpose and outcome at the onset never hurts: "Let's quickly review why we're together today, what we hope to accomplish, and the agenda for doing so."

In the case of small group work during a workshop, confusion often arises because only verbal instructions for the group's assignment are offered. By the tie the group assembles, they often have been forgotten. By also providing them in writing (via a slide or a handout) group's then have a point of reference to keep them focused in their conversation.  As facilitator you want to quickly mill among the groups to make sure they don't need any clarification on their task.

Life isn't linear and neither is our thinking

During the course of a meeting or planning session, it's not unusual for one topic to be a catalyst for potentially tangential ideas to surface.  In these moments, our role as facilitators is to help the group decide how to manage what's popped up:  is it a useful temporary detour or a distraction that will put us on the road to nowhereSome of your potential responses include:
  • Is this a topic that we should address right now?  If not, let me add it to the parking lot (or issues bin).
  • That's an interesting angle we didn't plan for in our discussions today.  Is it something we could add to our agenda given what else we need to accomplish?  What are our options here?
  • There seems to be some energy around the alternative issue that Susan just introduced.  Am I seeing that correctly?  If so, would we like to put 5-10 minutes on the clock to explore this and see about its potential connection to the current agenda item?
The key is helping the group determine whether or not the tangential topic has merit for the discussions that are currently convened.  If not, park it and manage it at the end of the meeting.  If it does, help determine where to talk about it (now or later in the agenda) and consider how you might need to shift time allocation for the rest of your agenda items.

Different groups have different needs

Clusters of individuals in a group frequently want to spend different amounts of time talking about items on the meeting agenda or in your workshop outline.  Dividing people into these "like minded" conversation groups can allow many possibly more focused conversations to occur simultaneously.

You'll need to determine if reporting from the small group needs to occur, as well as the process for doing so that elicits the most useful information in the most efficient way.  Letting each group report out with no constraints can easily run away with the clock, so put some structure to the process.  "I want to make sure we hear from each group in the 10 minutes we have available, so that means one 60-second takeaway from each of you."  When I'm trying to keep a tight control on time. I find moving next to the person reporting out (rather than calling on them from the front of the room) seems to help.

And reporting doesn't have to be verbal.  Each group could note its three top ideas on a flipchart, all charts are posted, and people can read them during the break.  Or the takeaways are noted on a piece of paper and those sheets are passed from group to group in a quick "read and pass."  Using such "parallel processes" requires less time than a serial facilitation format.

Different perspectives often exist

Photo credit: http://www.adamatorres.com
Finally, it's common that on any given issue a wide variety of individual perspectives exist.  Effective facilitation ensures that they each get heard, but in an efficient manner so that the bulk of the conversation can focus on the implications of the different perspectives.   Affinity diagrams are one effective tool for managing this issue.  Individual perspectives on an issue or question are noted on index cards or Post-Its and then participants cluster those having affinity for each other.  These themed groupings can then become the basis for large group conversation.

What are other approaches you use to help keep a group stay focused on what matters most during a meeting or workshop?

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.

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