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Bad meetings begone!

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Case study

2 October 2020

There are few things that inspire more dread than a bad meeting. One of those few things is a bad online meeting.

But there’s a way to overcome this – it’s called facilitation.

Nick Housego is a full-time professional facilitator at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE). While Nick spends his time running useful, outcomes-focussed meetings, he’s also on a not-so-secret mission - to train others in the art.

We picked Nick’s brain to get some tips and find out where to get further advice.

Key innovation principles

  • Focus on the outcome.
  • Be open and flexible and iterate as needed.
  • Know how to use the tools.

Facilitator as referee

Nick has been a practicing facilitator for more years than he’d care to recount and he’s been running the Australian Government Facilitators Community of Practice since 2015.

‘What I do specifically is group process facilitation, which is different to training facilitation, or design facilitation,’ says Nick. In group process facilitation, the key is to provide structure and safety so people can discuss the issue and get to the outcome they need.

‘You’re trying to get ideas out of people’s heads and onto the table where they can be discussed on a level playing field,’ says Nick.

‘A meeting without a facilitator can be unfocused and dominated by strong personalities or hierarchy. Facilitation gives everyone a fair go, redirecting the dominant person, and bringing out the introvert.’

‘Essentially you’re the referee. The teams come along to the meeting, and you’re there to guide it to the outcome they’re looking for.’ And like a referee, the facilitator definitely has to pay attention and be light on their feet.

Get briefed by the boss

A key part of the process is to make sure you get a very detailed brief from the most senior person on the team.

‘You need to talk to the senior person, to find out what outcomes they’re looking for. And also to tell them what you’ll be doing for them. The participants are the subject matter experts and a facilitator is there to take care of things like timing, processes, and the agenda, so the others can focus on the content,’ says Nick.

The outcomes become your agenda items.

But while an agenda clearly sets out what needs to be addressed, is should also be flexible, just in case…

The agenda is plasticine

At a recent virtual meeting, Nick ran into an issue. Pre-work that was supposed to have been sent to participants 7 days earlier only went out 7 minutes before the meeting started!

Without pre-reading, Nick realised they’d struggle to get through the agenda.

‘I decided to sacrifice 20 minutes at the start of the session for people to go through the material.’

Nick said he took advantage of the online setting to reshape the agenda.

‘I asked people to add their reflections on the reading in the chat so they were captured but it didn’t disturb the group. I also allowed the group to flag items they thought should be in the agenda. We decided together which new items should be in the meeting, and which existing items we’d let go,’ says Nick.

‘By changing what we were going to do together, we managed to have a successful meeting. And got a commitment to come back to the topic at another session to do further decision making.’

Virtual tips for real results

‘Many facilitators fear virtual meetings because of things that can go wrong with the technology and the difficulties with reading the room,’ claims Nick.

One of his key tips is that if you’re the facilitator, you shouldn’t be running the tech.

‘You’re there for the people and process. And you shouldn’t be worrying about how the technology is working,’ says Nick.

‘The online format also means you have to work a lot harder to build rapport with people. Especially people you don’t already know.’

Tricks like using the chat function and interactive tools, like Mentimeter, can help more introverted people to have their say.

‘You also have to accept that you’re limited by time. 2-3 hours is the most people can do on a video call so don’t go over this,’ says Nick.

‘Also watch for basic things. Think about what’s going to be behind you on video. Don’t set up in front of a window or you’ll turn yourself into a silhouette.’

Virtual has its perks

Recently, Nick facilitated his first in-person meeting in 6 months. While there was a definite feeling of relief and camaraderie in the room, he was surprised to find he was missing some of the benefits of online meetings.

‘The common wisdom is that people talk over each other in online meetings but I’ve found the opposite to be true. People are very willing to wait their turn, or wait to be called on online. The second people were in a physical room, they were talking all over each other.’

Apprentice with master craftspeople

People who’ve been in facilitated meetings tend to be converts. But the number of facilitators in the public service is still pretty low.

‘People don’t realise it’s a genuine career path,’ says Nick. ‘And the need is definitely there.’

To help address this need, Nick is upskilling people through his Australian Government Facilitators Community of Practice. The 600 members from across the public and private sectors are invited to meet each month to get tips, tricks and real-world examples from experienced facilitators.

‘One of the dangers is that it’s easy to find a facilitation tool online. But a tool in the hands of someone who doesn’t have the experience, is unlikely to get good results. We bring in the master craftspeople to share their experience.’

If you’d like to join the facilitator community, email Nicholas.housego@awe.gov.au.

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