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Key Facilitation Skills: Sequencing Work Productively

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September 14, 2020
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cross-posted from Laird's Commentary on Community and Consensus

As a professional facilitator for more than three decades, I've had ample opportunity to observe which skills make the most difference. As a facilitation trainer the past 15 years, I've collected plenty of data about which lessons have been the most challenging for students to digest. Taken all together, I've decided to assemble a series of blog posts on the facilitation skills I consider to be both the hardest to master and the most potent for producing productive meetings. They will all bear the header Key Facilitation Skills and it's a distillation of where I believe the heavy lifting is done.

Here are the headlines of what I'll cover in this series:

I. Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy
II. Working Constructively with Emotions
III. Managing the Obstreperous
IV. Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horse Require
V. Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression
VI.Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations
VII. Walking the Feedback Talk
VIII. Sis Boom Bang
IX. Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement
X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous)
XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing
XII. Becoming Multi-tongued
XIII. Not Leaving Product on the Table
XIV. Sequencing Issues Productively
XV. Trusting the Force 

• • •

Sequencing Work Productively

Plenary time is precious. It's expensive getting everyone together and the time should be used wisely. 

On the front end that means agenda suggestions should be carefully screened to make sure that they are appropriate for whole group consideration, are sufficiently mature for prime time, and have a high enough priority relative to other work that clears the first two hurdles (don't try to put a 20 lb meeting in a 10 lb sack).

But that's not the hard part. What I want to drill down on in this blog is how to tackle an issue effectively once it's made it to the plenary floor. Here's the sequence I propose:

1. Presentation of the Issue 

What are we talking about? What needs to be decided at the plenary level? What are the relevant group agreements bearing on this topic (if any)? If there has been recent prior work done on this topic, what was accomplished and where did that leave off (no need to re-plow old ground).

This is typically handled by a presenter who is not the facilitator. It's OK for the presenter to be a stakeholder and to have preferences about the outcome; it is not OK for facilitators to be stakeholders—they need to be neutral.

Caution: It is relatively common for strong presenters to slip into the role of facilitator by calling on people with questions or comments, and engaging in dialog with them. Don't let this happen to you! As soon as the presentation is over, thank the presenter, and ask them to sit down. (You're flirting with danger whenever you allow a non-neutral person to run the meeting.)

2. Questions 

Did everyone understand the Presentation? This is not what do we want to do about it—that's later. The point here is getting everyone on the same bus before it pulls out of the station. The better the Presentation, the fewer the questions.

2a. Clearing the Air

If there is non-trivial unresolved tension associated with the issue, it's an excellent idea to deal with that before anything else. If you attempt to plow ahead without dealing with this (perhaps you weren't aware of the tension; perhaps you were afraid of it; perhaps there's resistance on the part of the group or the protagonists to opening that door) it will often bite you in the butt. Tension is associated with distortion and distraction, making it difficult to steer clear of reactivity or to hear accurately what everyone is saying. Rather than trying to cope with distortion on the fly, it's almost always better to deal with it directly and separately first.

Note 1: In order to do this, there needs to be agreement that the group will work with emotions; facilitators need to be authorized to engage with feelings, and they need to have the ability to do so with skill and compassion. That's a lot of ifs.

Note 2: If there are no significant tensions associated with the issue, this step can be skipped.

3. Identification of Factors

Which group values are in play? Do some considerations trump others, or are they all of equal weight?

It generally works much better if the group articulates how it will assess the suitability of potential solutions (or action steps) before considering what those solutions will be. This is an expansive phase. If people hold strong opinions about what should be taken into account, it is in this segment that they can be given time on the soap box to make their pitch.

4. Proposal Generating

Now, finally, we get to solutions. What do people think is the best response, given all that we're trying to take into account (the output of the preceding step)?

Distinct from the previous step, this one is contractive. It's time to set aside the advocacy that characterized step 3, and focus on bridging.

—Pitfall #1: Starting with proposals

Groups frequently require that the presentation of an issue be accompanied by a proposed solution, in the hope that that will speed up the consideration. Groups do this for two reasons: first, as a safeguard against an issue not being well defined. If the presenter is required to offer a response, s/he is that much more likely to have a clear handle on the problem. Second, if the group is lucky, the offered solution may be a winner and allow the group to skip over a potential slog in plenary, saving who knows how much time and grief.

The downside of this is that the presenter is required to invest in a solution before the whole group has had a chance to identify what needs to be taken into account, and if the initiator has a significant hole in their thinking about what needs to be addressed, that dog won't hunt—and all the effort devoted to problem solving may be down the drain, which doesn't help morale a lick.

It doesn't take many experiences of that before there is a significant drop in enthusiasm for serving on committees—which appear to be an assignment to serve as so much cannon fodder for plenary scrutiny. It's much better to not start on solutions until the plenary has signed off on what needs to be taken into account.

—Pitfall #2: Commingling steps 3 & 4

Most groups wrestle with an issue in one big conversation (or multiple big conversations), which can often devolve into a melees or swamp draining assignments if the issue is difficult. While it's no small challenge in and of itself working through topics where the outcome is consequential and there are strongly held divergent opinions, the water is unnecessarily muddied further by attempting to identify what needs to be taken into account at the same time that you're developing solutions.

As was pointed out above, the first step is expansive and the second is contractive. When groups try to breathe in and out at the same time, it gets confusing. People get lost about what kinds of comments are appropriate and it can be hard to follow the bouncing ball. Someone expresses a concern, and the next speaker offers a solution while a third person is waiting their turn to express a different concern. It can be hard discerning whether you're coming or going.

5. Decision

Once the group is satisfied that it's done what it can to sensitively manifest the best solution it can, you're ready to make a decision—unless you believe it's prudent to let the proposal incubate for a time, to give those who missed the meeting a chance to weigh in, and for those in attendance to process any residual reservations.

Note that there can be a fine line between dithering and reflecting. I am not advocating for weak knees; I'm suggesting that if there is no urgency about the issue, then waiting for another meeting cycle to allow for reflected input can result in better grounded decisions.

—Pitfall #3: Getting Bogged Down in Late Concerns

If you decide to postpone a decision until the meeting after you've completed proposal generation, there is a danger of inviting monkey business from members who skipped prior meetings but arrive at the final one to throw sand in the gears by expressing concerns about the proposal—something that should have happened back in Step 3. While it's possible that their last-minute concern is something missed in the prior considerations and the group will be smart to stop and go back, you are not obliged to do so if you have adopted this sequence as the official way you do business. A member's right to have their views taken into account is tied at the hip to their responsibility to make their views known in a timely way.

6. Implementation

The last step is all about dotting i's and crossing t's. What are the action steps, who will cary them out, what's the budget (if one is needed), what are the reporting expectations, and what are the deadlines? In general, implementation details are straight forward, yet groups sometimes neglect to pin them down in the rush to be done and move onto the next topic (or to adjourn). It's a shame to squander otherwise solid work by getting sloppy at the end. Don't let that happen to you. 


Header image by Steven Depolo. CC BY 2.0


I’ve lived in intentional community for 41 years: 39 years at Sandhill Farm (a small, income-sharing community I helped found in 1974 in northeast Missouri), followed by 20 months at nearby Dancing Rabbit, an ecovillage started in 1997 with a core mission of modeling how to live a great life on a resource budget that’s only 10% of the US average. Today I live in Chapel Hill NC, where I’m trying to pioneer a new community with close friends. For the last 28 years I’ve also been integrally involved with the Fellowship for Intentional Community—a North American network dedicated to providing the information and inspiration of cooperative living to the widest possible audience. Recognizing the value of what is being learned in intentional communities about how to solve problems collaboratively and work constructively with conflict, I started a part-time career as a process consultant in 1987. Today, I’m on the road half the time conducting trainings, working with groups, and attending events all over the country. Recreationally, my passions include celebration cooking, duplicate bridge, wilderness canoeing, and the New York Times Sunday crossword.

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