Is content king?

In the last couple of weeks, I led two sessions on “change leadership” for two different clients as part of day-long workshops with leadership teams facing very significant change. They were well received but I left one feeling like I had missed a Kairos moment and the other thinking we didn’t address enough of the resistance in the room. It reminded me that facilitation and design is just as, if not more, important than content. As communicators, we can focus too much on having great content, but we need to put the same energy and expertise into helping our audience engage with it so that they leave committed to your pre-defined purpose for the day.

Here are the “Ten Facilitation Principles” I developed to feedback to each client:

1. Define and keep to the purpose. You need to agree the overall purpose of the day then keep the discussion on target. “Where are we in relation to …?” Facilitation is a leadership role because it gets the group from where they are now to where they need to get to. Content is key, but not enough in itself.
2. Have a process as well as an agenda. When looking at the agenda and content, ask “How?” will we do this in a way that involves the group experientially in learning. Good process tools are break-outs in pairs and groups, as well as Q&A in plenary. When planning process ask “Does the speaker have all the answers? Is this “tell and sell”? or “do we want to find a solution in the room?” There will be more buy-in to a solution developed in the room. Apply theories and tools to live situations rather than keeping the discussion abstract. 10 mins on a model and 20 mins applying it, is better than 30 superb minutes on the model.
3. Questions. Think of questions in advance. Great questions lead to great conversations by involving and drawing people out. At school, we were judged by the answers we give to questions, but now at work, communicators should be judged by the questions we ask. The right question shows great understanding. “You look like you have a question about this”. “Do I sense that you disagree with what was just said?”
4. Get everyone to say something very early on and keep involving all participants. If people have not made a meaningful contribution within the first 20 minutes, then they probably won’t all day. Be clear at the start that you want interaction and questions. Be clear about how and when. If someone has not contributed, gently try and draw them in. Consider speaking to them during the break to check they are OK. “How do the rest of you feel about this?”
5. Check energy levels regularly. Has no-one said or asked anything for some time? Do people look alert and engaged? Has there been any laughter? If not, make a change. Even just ask people to stand up and stretch for ten seconds. Check and sustain your own energy levels too. Mix up the speakers vs one person for the whole day.
6. Embrace and even draw out conflict and disagreement. Is there an elephant in the room? What are the unspoken or hidden concerns? This will keep energy high. Keep the group focused on constructive conflict and solving problems vs complaining or criticism.
7. Hold to a timetable for breaks etc. People may want the toilet and stop following because they are more focused on the time. You need to respect stop and start times. The rest of the agenda can be a “work of fiction”.
8. Contract at the start. Ask people what they want to get out of the session. Ask them how we need to behave and make sure everyone signs up to those “ground rules” e.g. phones away, speak up when you disagree etc.
9. Consider the space. A semi-circle of chairs is ideal with no desks or barriers to support interaction. Keep the room at a good temperature, not too hot or cold. Natural daylight is essential and check the acoustics. Can you be heard without a microphone? Avoid distractions i.e. people wondering through.
10. Move the discussion to a conclusion, action and commitments. Help the group focus on what they can do and establish a ground rule of “a bias for action”. Be clear as to who is doing what, by when after the meeting.

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