Professional meeting facilitators have developed a number of "group process" techniques designed to help groups work more effectively in meetings. These group process techniques do make a difference. Research has shown that groups that use group process procedures are more satisfied with their decisions and more committed to their implementation.

Does this mean you need a facilitator for your meeting? What a facilitator brings to a meeting is knowledge of these techniques, and even more important, an understanding of which technique is useful in a particular situation and a sense of timing as to when to suggest it. So if your meeting is exceptionally important, if there are major disputes, or if key players need to be participants rather than meeting leaders, then, "yes," a facilitator may be very useful.

But most managers are in scores of meetings, maybe hundreds of meetings every month. Senior managers often spend more that 50% of their time in meetings. The reality is that most managers won't have access to facilitators for most meetings. The challenge is to get value from the group process techniques that facilitators use, without always having to have a professional facilitator around to tell you which technique to use.

There are some basic principles you'll need to follow. Otherwise you may find yourself doing something that is the equivalent to using a spreadsheet application when you really need word processing – it may be an absolutely wonderful spreadsheet program, but if it is grossly inappropriate to the task it will impede rather than help the group work effectively.

The secret to avoiding this kind of problem is careful pre-planning of your meeting. I frequently tell my clients that at least 50% of the value I bring to their meetings as a facilitator will come from the work I do before the meeting. All the groundwork has to be laid before the first "Good morning, the purpose of today's meeting is...." An effective manager recognizes that he or she (or someone he/she designates) needs to spend upfront time to do the kind of meeting planning that a facilitator would do.

Here are some of the issues you need to address during your pre-planning:

1. What type of meeting is this?
There are a number of very different meeting types, for example:
Information briefings Program/project planning or review
Trust building/team-building Decision-making
Generating new ideas or approaches Dispute resolution
Strategic planning Problem solving/crisis resolution
Commitment-building Celebrations

The type of meeting, combined with the subject matter, tells you who needs to participate, what kind of interaction is needed to accomplish the meeting purpose, and provides the context for selection of group process techniques.

Many meetings play multiple meeting functions. Agenda Item #1 may simply be an informational briefing, while Agenda Item #2 is a decision-making item, and Agenda Item #3 is a problem-solving item. Your agenda needs to clearly specify what kind of item it is. This tells people; "Here's what we expect from you during this agenda item." When this is not clear, people may engage in dysfunctional behavior even when trying very hard to be a good team player because they don't understand what they are being asked to do.

In the future, as various kinds of collaborative technologies becomes common, defining the meeting purpose will be a prelude to the question; "How many senses does this meeting require?" If the purpose of the meeting is trust-building, you probably need a face-to-face meeting with everybody is present in the room (all five senses). If the meeting is strictly informational, you may do better to post the information on the intranet, and let people download it at their own convenience (1–2 senses).

Where in the decision-making process are we?
Reaching a decision usually requires a number of discrete steps, such as defining the problem, generating alternatives, and so on. Sometimes those steps all occur in one meeting. But on major decisions these steps are often sequenced over a number of meetings.

At each step, different behavior is required of participants. So it is imperative that the meeting planner specify where in the decision making process this meeting (or this agenda item) is.

There are a number of ways of describing the steps in the decision-making process, but the one I continue to find the most universal is:
Define the problem or opportunity (may include defining criteria for acceptability or success)
Generate alternatives
Evaluate alternatives
Select a course of action
Define the implementation plan
Establish mechanisms for determining whether or not your approach is working

I find it very helpful, particularly among people who work together frequently, to have a clearly defined series of steps that the group uses whenever they make decisions. It doesn't have to be the one above, so long as it works for the kinds of issues people in your organization are addressing. What does matter is that it is used frequently enough so that people develop a common language and common set of expectations for each step in the process. I recommend you post these steps in each meeting room, so that participants can refer to them at a glance.

Which group process technique is appropriate for this meeting (or for this agenda item)?
Most group process techniques are useful for only one of the steps in the decision making process. A key example is the technique known as "brainstorming." The key elements of brainstorming are to engage the group in generating a large quantity of alternatives, suspending judgment as to which ideas are workable. This is a very powerful technique – in fact, it often generates so many options that it overpowers the team's ability to evaluate the alternatives in a reasonable period of time.

But it is a technique that is useful primarily for the "generate alternatives" step in decision making. Yet I've seen people use the technique at many other steps in the process. The participants will obediently generate all kinds of answers, but then nobody will know what to do with these answers because the don't seem to be contributing to resolution. In fact, they seem to be taking you back to an earlier step in the process (they are).

Here's a quick summary of some of the issues at each step in the decision making process, and some of the useful group process techniques for each step:

Define the Problem or Opportunity
The biggest problem with this step is to get people to do it! Groups have an amazing capacity for skipping over problem definition and going straight to thinking about possible solutions. Not only do they go straight to solutions, they go straight to the solutions they already know how to do, (e.g. if your company makes widgets, you'll assume that the solution to the problem is to make a widget).

The problem with this behavior is that you are likely to come up with a truly wonderful solution to the wrong problem, or you don't think through the fundamental issues so you come up with something that is just a patch on top of prior patches.

Here are a few techniques for helping groups define problems:

Force Field Analysis: Have the group brainstorm two lists: (1) forces that are "driving" for change; (2) forces that are "restraining" change. Then discuss strategies to eliminate the restraining forces and capitalize on the driving forces.

Relationship Diagrams: Write a short statement of an issue or problem on a card (or large post-it) and stick it on a blank wall. Give everyone cards and ask them to identify the factors that affect the issue or problem, writing one idea per card (big enough so that they are easy to read). Move the cards around so that the factors that are related to each other are located together. Analyze the relationships. Use colored tape or strings to show cause-effect relationship Those cards that are most often seen as being a cause (have the most tape or strings attached) are more likely to be the root cause of your problem.

Immersion: Hold the session in a facility that permits the group to move around, break off into small groups, or even work alone. Before the team gathers, create a "high stimulus" environment containing anything that might be related to the issue -- articles, books, pictures, (even toys that can be used to diagram or model ideas, e.g. Tinker Toys). Break into small groups and ask small groups to prowl through any of the materials they want. Give them a time deadline to report back anything they've found that might apply to the problem. After the reports, agree on promising trends and give teams new assignments related to those trends. Only after you've totally immersed yourselves in thinking about the problem from many different perspectives does the team try to reach agreement on the problem definition.

Invent the Problem: After "immersion," state the problem as if you know the outcome, but just don't know how you got there. For example, a car rental executive might say: "Picture this. You've got no central reservation system and things are running very well. The workload is up but costs are way down. How did you do it?"

Generate Alternatives
The real challenges during this step are to: 1) help people suspend judgmental ways of thinking; 2) help people get out of old ways of thinking about the problem, and 3) separate ideas from personalities (If Bill has identified 10 ideas, no particular idea is so associated with Bill that people feel a need to support or oppose the idea because it is Bill's).

Most people who work in the creativity field stress that people need to be in a playful, even joyous, mood to be optimally creative. Some R&D companies even provide water guns, have toys on all the meeting room tables, encourage food fights – anything to get people out of being too adult.

Here are a few of the simpler techniques for generating alternatives:

Brainstorming: Get people to generate lots, and lots, of ideas. List them all on a flipchart or whiteboard. Don't permit any evaluative comments (even positive ones). The creative ideas are likely to come after you've flushed out the old ideas, so push for quantity.

Analogies (Synectics): Get people to identify options by working through several analogies. "If our organization was a biological system the way we'd solve this problem would be ...." "If it were a virus, we'd ...."

"If I had My Druthers" Fantasy: Create fantasy solutions with no rules or "givens" including physical laws like gravity or market realities. "If I had my druthers we'd all communicate using ESP, and then we wouldn't need..." After several fantasies, talk about ways you could solve the problem in a similar manner while addressing physical or market realities, i.e. use cell phones instead of ESP.

Evaluate Alternatives
If you use the techniques described above for generating alternatives, your problem is likely to be that you've generated so many alternatives that you don't know how to evaluate them in a timely manner. Sometimes it is even worthwhile to put off the evaluation for a follow-up meeting so you can have a work group do some analysis of the alternatives between meetings.

Here are a few techniques for evaluating alternatives during meetings:

Straw-votes: If you are evaluating a list of brainstorming ideas, one of the quickest ways to get a reading on which items justify group discussion time is to give every participant a fixed number of colored dots or gummed stars (usually 5-10) and tell them to indicate which ideas they feel deserve further discussion by applying their colored dots/stars to the wall or flip chart sheets, next to the item. Typically they can use their dots anyway they want, e.g. if they want to use all their dots on one item, they can do so. The voting should occur only after everybody understands what is meant by each item, and after similar ideas have been combined (so that votes aren't split between the same idea worded two different ways).

Another variation of straw voting is to have everybody pick the five ideas they think are most significant (or deserve discussion), putting them in rank order. Then they give 5 points to their highest ranked item, 4 points to the next highest, and so on. Record the scores alongside the items.

Straw-voting is a way of reducing the number of items, but it will still leave you with a number of "finalists," and should not be used to choose among them.

Screening: Sometimes it is possible to screen out ideas by using decision rules related to cost, feasibility, months to bring on line, environmental impact. A rule might be: "total initial investment can't exceed $1,000,000." Having used a screening process on many large-scale decisions I can tell you that screening can reduce the number of options, but it won't make a decision for you. In the final analysis you will need to "formulate" the best solution, often drawing from pieces of the earlier ideas.

Decision Analysis: There are a number of "decision analysis" techniques that are widely advocated. Most are variants of what is described in academia as "multi-attribute utility analysis." The fundamental concept is to (1) evaluate each alternative based on all critical attributes, e.g. cost, aesthetics, performance; (2) have all key decision makers identify the relative value of each attribute e.g. "cost is twice as important as aesthetics;" and (3) analyze which alternatives best satisfy the weights that have been identified. The answer could be different for each decision maker, because each decision maker assigned a different relative weight to the attributes.

To illustrate, when you choose a new car there are a number of attributes that need to be taken into account: price, roominess, maintenance record, trade-in, and, yes, sexiness. The first job is to establish where each alternative car fits on the scale for each individual attribute. The second task is to weight the attributes, that is, you may think price is relatively unimportant, while you wife thinks it is all-important. Use this analysis to identify areas of agreement and key areas of disagreement. The more sophisticated versions of these techniques will also allow you to do sensitivity analysis, e.g. if we doubled the priority we gave to cost would it change which car we selected?

One comment: This kind of analysis can be very useful in identifying the differences in priorities, and understanding which alternatives best match particular priorities. But unless everybody gives exactly the same weights to the attributes, (i.e. your wife and you both give exactly the same weight to cost, performance, maintenance and sexiness – an unlikely event), this kind of analysis will not make the decision for you.

Select a Course of Action:
I don't know any magic group process technique that will make decisions for you. That's why you get the big bucks! Some decision makers make decisions based on intuitive "Aha's," while others depend on detailed quantitative analysis.

I do know, from sometimes sad experience, that it is imperative to know who is making the decision. Sometimes it is "the boss." Sometimes it's a consensus decision. Sometimes it's a consensus decision unless the group can't agree, then the boss decides. Any of these approaches can work. What does not work is to have the group think it is making the decision but the boss is really going to make it. Expectations need to be clear and well defined.

Define the Implementation Plan
This is the stage at which the group thinks through all the tasks to implement your solution, and assigns responsibilities and deadlines for completing them.

Some of the simpler PERT-charting techniques help groups visualize all the components of a successful plan. This means that the group needs to work on a large white board or even the wall, to be able to visualize all the parts. One meeting center even has magnetized pieces of metal whiteboard, cut in the shape of PERT chart symbols, that will stick to the walls and can even be moved around on the wall.

If you use a SMART Board and digital projector, you can use a flow-chart or project management software application and project it on the whiteboard. As a group you can use all the tools from the software application, then download all your conclusions into a laptop. The Meeting Pro software that comes with your SMART Board also permits you to move items around on the board, without erasing, and has an excellent way of recording assignments, deadlines, etc. You can download all this information into a laptop, then send everybody their assignment lists by e-mail.

Establish Mechanisms for Determining Whether or Not Your Approach is Working
The team needs to define some way of determining whether its plan is, in fact, solving the problem (or is taking advantage of the opportunity) with which it started. When you set up a defined process for evaluating performance you can adjust your plan without getting into the "blame game," (e.g. trying to assign responsibility for failure). Without such a process, the plan usually has to break down completely before anyone will take action. Then you're stuck not only with the original problem, but all the bad feelings and ill-will that result from failure.

The Total Quality Management literature describes numerous techniques (pareto charts, scatter diagrams, histograms) for displaying your measurements. But the real issue is deciding what to measure. As James Robinson, then the CEO of American Express, once said: "Employees do what management inspects, not what management expects." The same is true for teams. What you decide to measure is what people will pay attention to.

Working on the Walls
Almost all of the techniques described above require recording participants' comments on flip chart sheets posted on walls, or on a whiteboard. Some of my clients have meeting rooms where the entire walls of the room are whiteboard. Groups like to "think big" like this. The only problem is getting the information down from the whiteboard so people can walk away with it. That's the advantage of using digital whiteboards like SMART Board (although I long for the day that SMART Boards cover whole walls, so groups can "think big" yet have the advantage of downloading). The other advantage of the digital whiteboards is that you can project a graphic template of a group process template on the board, have the group fill in the blanks, then download both the template and the group's responses.

If you don't have a digital whiteboard, think about laying out your whole process on a large continuous sheet of butcher paper, leaving space for the group's responses. Not only does your butcher-paper template guide the group through the process, but you can fold it up and walk away with it at the end of the meeting.

About James L. Creighton

  James L. Creighton is President of Creighton & Creighton, Inc., Los Gatos, CA. He is an internationally-renowned meeting facilitator and dispute resolution consultant and the co-author of CyberMeeting: How to Link People and Technology in Your Organization. Creighton also conducts training courses on effective use of collaborative technology. For more information, visit http://www.CandCInc.com.

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