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February 5, 2009 » 5:36 pm

Straying Off Point

Meeting Best Practices #1 and #2:    (N3K)

  1. Have a goal    (N3L)
  2. Have an agenda    (N3M)

The meeting facilitator’s challenge is to keep the group on point and to finish the meeting on time. That’s where the agenda comes in.    (N3N)

Here’s the problem: What if the agenda is wrong?    (N3O)

We decide to the best of our abilities what the agenda should be, based not only on the goal but on the makeup and state of the group. The latter factor tends to be the trouble-maker. Everyone may agree that the goal of a meeting is to come up with an action plan that everyone stands behind, but what if the people in the room all speak different languages or have different understandings of the problem? You have no chance of creating that action plan without Shared Understanding and Shared Language, and so an agenda focused entirely on making a plan is doomed to failure.    (N3P)

The challenge is knowing your group well enough to make these decisions. That’s why I often say that good design is more crucial to a meeting’s success than good facilitation, because you are tackling these questions before you even step into the meeting.    (N3Q)

What happens if the goal shifts? This happens often when the problem is complex enough. Everyone agrees before the meeting on what the problem is, then in the course of collectively drafting a solution, you suddenly realize that you don’t understand the problem after all. Now the facilitator’s role is critical, because he or she needs to decide whether to stick with the agenda or revise it on the fly.    (N3R)

The reality is that agendas are important, but they need to be fluid. As a facilitator, you need to reserve the right to stray off point if you feel like the situation merits it. This is one reason that I feel so strongly in hiding the agenda, especially with the kind of highly emergent meetings that I usually design. People tend to cling to the agenda like a life-preserver rather than risk swimming into the unknown, which is certainly scarier, but is often necessary. It’s better to trust the facilitator to stay on point and stray off point when the situation merits it.    (N3S)

This is also why I like Dialogue Mapping so much as a facilitation technique. With Dialogue Mapping, the emergent structure of the conversation along with the key underlying questions are explicit and apparent to all of the participants, so that you can effectively leverage the Collective Intelligence of the group rather than rely on the facilitator to be the sole driver.    (N3T)

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