Master Facilitation #1: How to Prepare for an Amazing Workshop that Delivers Results and Avoids Putting the Team into a Meeting coma

Have you ever attended an important workshop or meeting that you were excited about getting to a great result only to leave deflated, exhausted and without hope? Or have you ever attended a workshop you weren’t excited about but left with newfound energy and excitement? What was the difference? The Facilitator! A great facilitator knows how to prepare, execute and follow up in way that is fun, productive and energizing. But what are the keys to flawless facilitation?

If you walk into a workshop without a good plan and agenda, you have already lost the game. You cannot just jump in with a flip chart and listening skills and think that you will kill it, you are rolling the dice on the outcome. Facilitation of a workshop is won or lost before the workshop even starts.

If you want to stand out from the rest, there are a few key things you need to prepare before your workshop even starts. And if you do these and do them well, you will achieve the results you want, you will establish yourself as a credible expert in facilitation and you will build trust with the team to get buy-in during this workshop and future initiatives.

Set Clear and Realistic Goals

Before the meeting, not at the meeting, you need to clearly understand (with your sponsor) what is expected from the workshop or series of meetings. What outcome is expected or what exactly do they want in their hands at the end? For example, if it is a strategy planning meeting, do they want a complete strategic plan? Do they want a specific piece of strategy? Do they want to review their last strategic plan and make some tweaks to it? If you aren’t aligned with your sponsor on the desired outcome and aren’t clear with ALL participants prior to starting on what the desired outcome is, the plan can be derailed during the workshop and you can spend valuable time trying to get the team to agree on why they are there.

You now need to determine if the desired goal is realistic given the timeline available. There is a rule of thumb that every time you think X time is required to reach the goal, the sponsor will think 0.5X is sufficient. So if you think 2 days is required to meet the goal, your sponsor will say that you only have 1 day. At this phase, you need to be tough and hold your ground. If you get pushed into a timeline that you aren’t comfortable with – you are risking your reputation and are setting yourself and your sponsor up to fail.

Find out Who is Involved

Every team is like a play, and just like a play, there are different characters involved. Some of pleasant, some are nasty, some have hidden agendas, some have blindspots and some have relationship histories and it is your job to understand that ahead of time.

If you spend the time getting to know each character up front, you can leverage their strengths and weaknesses during the workshop. You will find some people that are key influencers and if you are able to get them on board up front, then they will back you during the workshop. Remember – it only takes 1 person to completely derail a meeting so don’t underestimate this step.

And how to find out who the players are? You will be able to get some biased information from your sponsor but the best way is to complete 1:1 interviews prior to the workshop. During these interviews, you can determine:

  • What are the key issues
  • What do you want to ensure is covered?
  • Where is there agreement and disagreement already?
  • How are decisions made?
  • What are your ideas and suggestions?
  • What potential problems do you anticipate?

While this can be a time consuming process, it sets you up for a flawless workshop that wont waste time and will get right down to the meet as soon as everyone arrives.

How are Decisions Made

You need to understand the expectation for how decisions will be made during the workshop. For most companies, the leader in the room holds the decision-making rights but there also seems to be a common misconception that it is a democracy. If you know what the expectation is ahead of time (leader will make a decision during the workshop or he/she will make a final decision within 2 days of workshop), it allows you to shape your plan and be clear with EVERYONE on what to expect.
Types of Decision Making:

  • Leader Decides (in room or after)
  • Formal Vote
  • Consensus
  • Committee to vote to take to larger board

While some of these types are straight forward, we do need to be clear on what some of them mean. For example: Consensus means that while not everyone LOVES the idea or decision – everyone can live with it. So as a facilitator – you need to be careful how you word your questions. The best question to ask to ensure consensus is: Who cannot live with this decision? It forces people to evaluate if they just don’t like the idea or are strong opposed.

Anticipate Landmines

As a facilitator, you need to know what potential issues will arise during your workshop. Ask your sponsor what the potential problems would be and develop a plan ahead of time to account for them. If you know what issues will require the most time, what may require more data and what issues should be avoided during the workshop. For example, the sponsor may have an idea of a project that will require funding will be suggested. So you can plan to have some financial data available to understand what is available or have a list of what projects could be cut to accommodate.

How will Commitments be Upheld?

One of the most frustrating parts about workshops can be the follow up. The team spends an entire day doing strategy, comes up with a great plan that everyone can live with and then leadership gets cold feet and backs out on the commitment they made to resources, time or investment.

So before the workshop, you need to ask your sponsor how commitments will be upheld. It may mean that other initiatives may need to pause or stop in order to support whatever commitments are made. Getting alignment ahead of time will make the team more cognizant about biting off more than they can chew.

Develop your Plan

Facilitation and planning is not a one-size fits all approach and depending on what the desired outcome of the workshop is, you will need to structure the agenda and conversations to align with that desired outcome.

For example, have you ever been in a meeting where people seem to be talking about the same topic but are having very different conversations? Maybe one person thinks they are discussing a vision while someone else is jumping to action plans? It is your job as a facilitator to ensure people are in the same conversation and if you don’t plan out the workshop to be clear on the intent of each section then you are setting the team up for a frustrating experience. Below are some examples of conversations that could flow from one to another and keep the entire group aligned with what you are discussing and when.

  • Develop a shared vision
  • Evaluate Ideas and Make a Decision
  • Brainstorm Ideas
  • Prioritize
  • Test Scenarios
  • Set Direction
  • Yes/No or Go/No-Go
  • Develop an Action Plan
  • Resolve a key Challenge

Don’t Underestimate Logistics

Well prepared logistics can make or break the experience of your workshop. If the room isn’t set up well or proper food and breaks aren’t accounted for, it can cause all attendees to be distracted and become unfocused on the goal. Also, more and more people these days are unable to really unplug and focus.  So, if this is an important workshop, do it offsite where the team won’t be distracted by their day-to-day chaos. Another option is to develop a system to reach them in an emergency but don’t have their cell phones in their hands.

  • Where?
  • Audio Visual
  • Room Set-Up?
  • Food & Breaks
  • Proper Notification to Attendees
  • Entertainment
  • Timely Document Distribution
  • Ensure everyone will be there
  • No interruptions
  • No coming and going

Avoid the Lazy and Predictable

On the day of the workshop, you need to show up as the professional that you need to be. YOU set the tone for the day before any words are even spoken. YOU grab the group “by the horns” and get them moving forward when they are stuck.   YOU are open and honest about where you hear different conversations even about the same subject, where you see common ground and where you don’t, and where you see holes in the plan. And most importantly, YOU manage your energy to take the group where they need to go.

The last thing you should want as a facilitator is the host another boring, lazy and predictable workshop. And the key to avoiding those pitfalls is proper preparation! So do not try to cut corners here and skip the steps above – your reputation is on the line!

What have you done to prepare for a flawless workshop or meeting?