Facilitation Friday #38: Dealing with Details

I’ve previously written about facilitating sessions designed to elicit new ideas and fresh thinking.  But what about the other end of the project development spectrum … when you have to facilitate a session focused on all the detail of an effort?

These sessions often get mired in the discussion of one specific issue or item, limiting the time available for attention to other details.  The unfinished planning gets pushed to the next meeting where often the same phenomenon repeats itself.  The overwhelming number of details to discuss create a maze from which you can't escape.

A more useful approach is to focus a segment of a meeting or planning session exclusively on gathering all the details or questions that need attention.  We recently did this at a committee meeting for TEDxIndianapolis, an event I am helping plan.

The process was simple.  We agreed as a group that our goal was to gather every unfinished item, every pending question, but to not discuss any of them until we had completed that process.  A scribe captured the items generated in a running text file on her laptop, allowing the conversation to flow at a pretty fast and furious pace. 

We first identified unfinished business for the event by walking through it chronologically from the moment an attendee arrives at the location.  We then did additional due diligence thinking about details to address through the eyes of speakers and other stakeholders.  In the end we generated a list with dozens of details and tasks to be managed.  Simply having all of that information identified gave us a very realistic assessment of the work needing to be done.

When you need to facilitate a similar effort whose goal is to initially gather all the items that need attention here are a few practical pointers.
  • Have a designated scribe capture the information on a laptop and project that image on a screen.  The benefit is that recording happens much more quickly and you can easily cut and paste sections later.  The shortcoming is that you lose the visual of seeing the entire list at once, something flipchart pages posted around the room would allow to occur. You need to decide if this will be problematic.
  • Another approach is to make everyone in the group a scribe, giving each participant a stack of scratch paper or large Post-It’s.  When individuals think of a detail that needs to be addressed, they record it themselves and pass it to someone who posts it in under the appropriate heading on a wall or flipchart.  This helps organize the details thematically as you go, but for some people, recording their own thinking will disengage them from the conversation that is occurring.  Obviously you could do something similar electronically with everyone logged into a Wiki or shared word processing file and recording items in that document.  And project management software like Basecamp affords you even more options for preparing these planning checklists.
  • Regardless of approach, as facilitator you need to maintain tight control on the conversation so that it does not derail into managing any detail or question that is raised.  Simply remind people that the goal of this effort is to gather the details and questions, not to manage them. I generally find it helpful to stay physically close to the group and to use my body language to keep the energy high and the focus strong.
  • Once the participants generate a comprehensive list of the details needing attention they should organize thematically into categories that make the most sense for future attention.  This review and repositioning of the individual items often unearths additional details that needed to be added to the list.
  • You can now work with the group to prioritize those items that need to be discussed and resolved first using whatever criteria the group thinks is most important (time sensitivity being one of the obvious filters).
Any big event or project has hundreds of details that must be managed successfully.  Instead of dealing with them in an ad hoc fashion, it often is best to generate a master list of those items and to then use group discussion time to address those that most need attention.  Appropriately designing and facilitating such a process is a key skill any facilitator must develop.

Both the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and the Project Management Institute (PMI) offer great resources and tools that can help individuals and groups assure an appropriate attention to details.

What other strategies have you used to help a group identify and manage a long list of tasks? 

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