From babe-in-the-woods to internationally recognized facilitator

November 1991. Northern Michigan, almost at the Canadian border. Ten people gathered in a small hostel for a weeklong training in group facilitation and consensus decision-making.

I was thinking, “A whole week? What could be so complicated about this that we need so much time to learn it?”

Short answer: It was an initiation, thinly disguised as training. A life-changing introduction to work that would eventually cause me to move to Mexico, learn Spanish and work in 40 countries around the world.

The principles and techniques we learned that week became the foundation that enables me to stand in front of groups whose subject matter I can barely grasp (nanotechnology, petro-chemicals, eco-health) and whose context is alien to mine (post-civil war El Salvador, conservation projects in areas where narco-traffic is big business, nursing in the Caribbean) and add value by facilitating their discussions.

But back in 1991, I was still vague on the concept of facilitation. I did not know what “designing a process” could possibly mean. And having been raised in a conflict-phobic family, I was paralyzed when disagreements threatened to tear a group apart.

I did not know how to keep a discussion on track – or when to let it move on when the group´s focus took a sudden leap in a new direction.

Power dynamics confused me. Complexity and theories of change were not yet part of my professional vocabulary.

But that week in the woods was the first step.

Twenty years later, my colleague, Ana Rubio, and I began offering a similar learning opportunity for those intrepid souls who are fascinated by the possibility of transforming groups – whether they are work teams, corporate executives, volunteers, or government employees – into effective agents for change.

In IIFAC´s International Certificate Program in Professional Facilitation, we provide you with the skills to collaborate with clients, and the tools to plan and lead processes that support the goals of the group.

For those of you who are already coaches and trainers, this program will open new professional horizons.

For team leaders who find yourselves thrust into the role of facilitator, we will help you see how to optimize your group´s potential and achieve amazing results.

For those who work in large institutions where “death by meeting” is an everyday experience, you will discover ways to make meetings useful, rather than a continuous source of suffering and wasted time.

Our next series of courses begin in April in Bogotá, Colombia and Cuernavaca, Mexico.

But remember, I warned you: this experience could change your life. It did mine.

Interested in becoming a group facilitator? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your professional development needs.

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Beatrice’s 5-step program for making history

Writing about IIFAC’s 10th anniversary timeline caused me to think about how history happens. One thing is for sure –at least in my case– the outcome is always a surprise. Despite our periodic attempts to create an orderly strategic plan, set measurable goals and pursue specific results, IIFAC´s story has been wildly unpredictable.
Nevertheless, creating the timeline helped me identify some patterns that I suspect other change-oriented initiatives have experienced.

  1. Get passionate. Find something you truly care about.
  2. Create a circle. Invite others to join you. (Provide snacks)
  3. Combine learning and action. Study and discuss, but then get out there and DO. Reflect, incorporate the new learning and move on.
  4. Document. Take photos, make videos, save key documents and construct a common story.
  5. Persist. Stay alert to changing tides in the group and its surroundings, adapt as necessary, but keep going. Think journey, not destination.

So there you have my 5-step program for making history. Please note that I am not advocating an ego trip here. On the contrary, I am talking about putting your passion in the service of others and being curious about what happens next.

Interested in taking your facilitation to a new level? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your professional development needs.

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Never compete with a blackBerry

You will lose.

People who are checking their email, bronchi exchanging text messages, surfing the web, tweeting or playing “Words with Friends” during a meeting are NOT fully engaged with the others in the room.

In the past, we never had to deal with smart phones, small laptops, or iPads in the meeting room. Now that these weapons of mass distraction are all but universal, we need to consider our choices:

  1. Tolerate
  2. Ban
  3. Incorporate

Each of these options sends a message.

#1 (Tolerate) says: We recognize that this meeting may be boring for you at times, so feel free to do something else while the rest of us deal with the issues we came together to address.

#2 (Ban) says: We need you in the conversation. We recognize that, like everyone else in the room, you are busy. We promise to make good use of your time and end the session promptly at the announced hour.

#3 (Incorporate) says: We will use these technology tools at specific moments in the program. Until then, please turn them off.

Option #1 (Tolerate) is already the default setting at most meetings. Let´s explore what it would take for option #2 (Ban) to become the new normal.

  • The facilitator must propose the ban at the start of each meeting, along with whatever other process agreements the group may have.
  • The group must accept the proposal; otherwise the facilitator has no authority to impose it.
  • The ban must be universal. No exceptions (other than for the person taking the meeting minutes on a laptop or if someone is asked to check a fact on the internet)
  • The ban must be enforced. When the rule is violated, the facilitator must politely but firmly remind participants of the prior agreement and ask those who simply must use their devices to do so outside the meeting room.

Even more important, however, is the obligation of those convening and facilitating the meeting to have a clear, compelling purpose for the session and design an agenda that will engage participants instead of boring them to death.

In another post, I will consider option #3 (incorporate the use of BlackBerries and their cousins into the meeting design). Meanwhile, I would love to know your thoughts about personal electronic devices the meeting room.

Need help setting and enforcing ground rules in your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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The “laundry list” syndrome and how to counteract it

Too often meetings start out by making a collective list of issues to be addressed. The resulting “laundry list” includes everything from broad concepts (strategic planning) to pet peeves (messy desks), capsule of varying degrees of relevance to the group.

This practice is related to the “spinning wheels” phenomenon discussed in a previous blog.

  • It is often a sign that no effective agenda planning has occurred before the meeting.
  • It gives the misleading impression that whatever is mentioned will be discussed and/or decided.
  • Long lists of random items tend to paralyze rather than energize a group.
  • If repeated too frequently, ambulance laundry list-making produces a “here we go again” response from meeting participants.

What to do?

  1. Limit collective list making. While this may be a useful strategy for collecting concerns in a new group or one that has not met in a while, therapy do not make it a regular meeting practice.
  2. Write each item on a separate card to facilitate sorting and prioritizing (see below).
  3. Group the items. One effective way to accomplish this to put several images in a row along a wall or whiteboard. The images should be easily recognizable and NOT directly related to the purpose or interests of the group. For example, items of clothing (shirt, socks, pants, hat, gloves, shoes, etc.) or everyday tools (shovel, ladder, hammer, pliers, saw, etc.). Ask participants to place the cards that seem to go together under one of the images. If someone disagrees with the placement of a card he/she can move it to another location or make a duplicate card to put under another image. Give participants time to review the groupings. This is best done in silence. Then lead a brief discussion of the results, clarifying concepts and if necessary, moving items.
  4. Name the groups. Start with one image and the cards clustered under it and ask “What bigger idea do these items point to?” or “What name should we give this family of items?). Substitute this new name for the original image. (For example, “shirt” becomes “staffing needs”).
  5. Prioritize the named groups (not the items in the group). Assign each group of ideas to categories like these: Urgent (requires immediate attention) Important (needs serious, sustained attention), and Not now.
  6. Assign the Urgent and Important items to a person, committee, department, or other working group who will be responsible for leading action on this cluster of ideas.
  7. Put the “not now” items in cold storage – or the compost pile.
  8. Follow up in future meetings.
  9. Note: If it is impractical or impossible for the whole group to prioritize and assign responsibility for follow up, then the leader or executive team should carry out these tasks.

    List making can be an effective first step toward identifying concerns, but it is never a substitute for constructive action.

    Need help prioritizing agenda items? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Three Ways To Avoid “Wheel Spinning” In A Meeting

We’ve all been in meetings where the discussion goes around in circles, the same issues are raised over and over again. If someone proposes a solution, it is attacked and no positive action is taken. Sooner or later, the meeting ends, but the issues are still unresolved.

As a facilitator, I recommend three steps to break this vicious cycle.

  1. Get agreement that this is a problem we need to solve now. Too often an issue is brought up continuously by one or two people who are passionate about it, but who fail to get consensus from others about the timeliness or importance of their cause. The leader or other group members need to get tough about what items are put on the table. Everyone should understand why the issue is important and the reasons for discussing it now. Without this filter, the group is condemned to wasting time in another “here we go again” discussion.
  2. Designate one person as the “owner” of the issue. This person is responsible for collecting the relevant information concerning the issue and presenting it in an orderly manner in the meeting. The “owner” should care about the issue, but not be prematurely committed to any particular solution. If no one wants to assume this responsibility, then any discussions about the issue are guaranteed to go nowhere.
  3. Define a process for reaching and implementing a decision. “Process” means how to proceed toward a decision. An effective process includes these steps:

    a. Define the scope of issue (What exactly are we talking about)
    b. Collect relevant information
    c. Establish criteria for making the final decision
    d. Generate options (Do not prematurely commit to one solution)
    e. Evaluate the options in the light of the previously established criteria.
    f. Decide
    g. Implement
    h. Monitor results and, if necessary, modify the original decision.

  4. Rarely can a good decision be reached in a single discussion. But if the participants are convinced of the importance of the issue, understand where they are in the process, then “spinning wheels” will be replaced by forward momentum. If the designated leader does a good job managing the process, meeting time dedicated to the issue will be well spent.

    Need help keeping meeting discussions moving forward? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Don’t Confuse A Meeting With A Coffee Break

Imagine this scenario: Six people gather around a table in the conference room for their weekly staff meeting. They sip coffee, chat about football, politics or the family vacation, enjoying the opportunity to have a relaxed, informal conversation with their colleagues. Eventually, they begin to discuss business-related matters, but with no clear purpose and no tangible results. One person starts checking email on his Blackberry, another writes on her laptop. After an hour or so, the participants get back to their desks and the “real work” that awaits them there.

What´s wrong with this picture?

This was not a meeting. It was an extended coffee break. There is no apparent leadership. No one is taking responsibility for making good use of the group´s time. People tune out or “do their own thing”.

In recent posts I have shared some thoughts about the importance of agendas in meetings. Agendas are a way of communicating to participants the reason they have been called together and what they are being asked to contribute. Agendas can help make meetings much more efficient and productive. Nevertheless, sometimes people resist having an agenda. They feel that is a straightjacket, limiting rather than encouraging their participation. They would prefer to “just talk”.

Maybe they are right!

In high pressure environments, or when the group is enmeshed in a conflict or facing difficult decisions, an old-fashioned conversation may be just what a team needs.

Now imagine this scenario. The same six people enter the conference room and the leader says, “I know we are under a lot of pressure because of [a current challenge]. In our recent meetings we have either avoided this topic or gone around in circles, failing to reach a conclusion. Today I suggest that we take this opportunity to “just talk” to each other about how we perceive the issue. Work in pairs, small groups or all together, as you wish. No set agenda. No expected results.

To improve the odds that something will change, I ask the following:

  • Give each other your full attention. This means cell phones and laptops off.
  • Seek to understand each other, not to convince us of the rightness of your point of view.
  • After 45 minutes, we will stop to reflect on what we have heard.
  • Feel free to leave if you do not want to contribute to the conversation.

Any questions? ¨

What changed?

The process was altered with a clear intention and some guidelines to support participation. There is no guarantee that this ¨just talk¨ strategy will work, any more than we can know in advance if a written agenda will move a group to useful outcomes.

Key message:If you do not have a clear purpose and process for convening a meeting, just let people do their other work – or take a coffee break.

Need help making your meetings more focused and results-oriented? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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When NOT to call a meeting

This is a message for those who never chose to be a group facilitator, pharm but nevertheless have had responsibility for meetings thrust upon them

Before your next meeting, drugs take out a piece of paper or open your computer and complete the following four sentences.
1. The purpose of this meeting is to

a. Discuss ___________
b. Decide_____________

If there is nothing important to discuss or decide, do not call the meeting!

2. The people I need in the room for this discussion/decision are: ________________________________________________________________________

If the key people are not available, do not call the meeting!

3. The information needed for this discussion/decision is: ____________________________________________________________________

If the information is not available, do not call the meeting!

4. The time estimated to accomplish the meeting objective is:

a. Less than 1 hour
b. 1-3 hours
c. More than 3 hours
d. Other

If the participants´schedules and workload make it difficult for them to commit to a long meeting, consider spreading the process over several, shorter meetings. But DO set time limits – and respect them!

If you are satisfied that a meeting is necessary and feasible given the human and other resources at hand, then create a simple agenda designed to make the best possible use of the time available.

Unclear on the concept of “Agenda”’?

Theagenda is the map that keeps the group on track, moving toward the agreed upon meeting goals. Adjustments are made along the way to adapt to the emerging realities of the situation, but the agenda is the group´s common reference point. Where are we? Where are we going? How will we get there?

Sample agenda

Here´s an example of a one-hour agenda to discuss (but not necessarily decide) what to do about a given situation:

  • Clarify the purpose of the meeting and present the proposed agenda (10 minutes)
  • Present background information (15 minutes)
  • Generate options for resolving the issue (20 minutes)
  • Define next steps and assign tasks (10 minutes)
  • Set date for next meeting (if needed)
  • Thank the participants and let them get back to their other work!

For more tips on effective agendas, consult the Bonfire articles in the resource section on the IIFAC website . Access is free, but you need tosign in. Look forthe category “effective meetings/agendas.”

Need help deciding when to cancel a meeting? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

Good luck with your next meeting!

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Ideal number of meeting participants?

In a recent training on Effective Meetings I was asked, sale | “What is the ideal number of meeting participants?”

My short answer is that there is no ideal number. What really matters is getting the right people in the room, viagra ed meaning those that can make a significant contribution to the discussion.

But then the person asking reframed her question, allergist “What is the maximum number of participants in a meeting?”

I suspect that behind this question lurks the convener´s fear of working with a large group and the common misconception that a small group is easier to manage than a large one.

Think about it. In your experience, is a small group capable of

  • Wasting time?
  • Getting off track?
  • Getting stuck in conflict?
  • Making bad decisions?

By the same token, can you remember a large group that

  • Focused on the key issue at hand?
  • Generated and evaluated ideas?
  • Dealt effectively with conflict?
  • Made good decisions?

The success factor of a meeting is determined by the quality of the planning before the event (including clear objective, well-structured agenda, inviting the right people) and skillful facilitation of the process.

In short, it is not how many should attend but who and why.

Beatrice Briggs
Director, IIFAC

Need help deciding how many people to invite to a meeting? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Five things I love about being a facilitator

  1. The puzzled expression on people´s faces when I tell them what I do. Of course, health I often wish that group facilitation were a more readily understood occupation. But I love the “teachable moment” that arises when someone asks, “Facilitator? What is that? “
  2. The relief felt by meeting and conference organizers when I agree to help plan and facilitate their event. These clientsare thrilled that a certified professional will advise them on how to make their meeting both participatory and productive.
  3. The cautious optimism of meeting participants when I step forward and introduce myself at the start of an event. These people are hopeful that I will make good use of their time, respect their interventions and save them from “death by PowerPoint”.
  4. The buzz of conversation when meeting participants beginto share their ideas. The moment in which the flow of information stops coming from the front of the room and instead springs from the hearts and minds of those in attendance always brings a smile of satisfaction to my face. The essence of my work is creating the conditions that permit meaningful conversations to occur.
  5. The thoughtful silence just before a group makes a decision. After the relevant information has been presented, passionate opinions have been shared, and the proposal under discussion has been honed by the collective wisdom of those present, comes the moment when as facilitator, I say, “Are we ready to make a decision?” This is the divide between the talking and the doing, between the conversation and the commitment. The silence is full of possibilities.


Beatrice Briggs
Director, IIFAC

Interested in becoming a group facilitator? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your professional development needs.

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You can prevent meeting hijacking

Here’s a touchy subject: when is it OK to interrupt a speaker?  Review these guidelines and be assured that sometimes, order arthritis interruption is exactly what’s called for.

When he/she is

  • Exceeding their allotted time
  • Being offensive
  • Speaking off topic
  • Repeating themselves
  • Interrupting others

This is not easy, but failing to act often means that the agenda is hijacked by the dominant, talkative few. Skilled meeting facilitators learn when and how to interrupt. You can too!

Need help keeping your meetings focused? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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