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How To Facilitate Any Project Session

project-facilitation-2080Project managers need to be good at facilitation because we run a lot of meetings and take part in a lot of discussions. A lot of facilitation happens during project initiation. But you also want to be able to draw on your facilitation skills throughout the life of your project.

In this article I’ll show you how to facilitate any session.

First Things First: Plan

You’ll have the best outcomes when you plan for your meetings. When you are facilitating, you’ll need to put a bit more thought into what you are going to do with your meeting time. Simply turning up and hoping the attendees can talk through their problems isn’t going to be enough.

First, set clear objectives for the session. If you know what you want to get out of it, you’ll probably get it.

Then, work out how you are going to get there. Do you want someone to do a short presentation on the problem, followed by a facilitated debate? Will there be brainstorming? Think about the different tools you are able to use (and there are far too many to go into in this article). Sometimes the ones that you know and love the best are the easiest to use because you’ll be confident with them.

Gather your equipment. Facilitators take a box with them to every meeting: don’t rely on your kit being in the meeting room. You’ll need pens and sticky notes as a minimum and a rolled up flip chart pad wouldn’t go amiss either. If you need a projector to connect to your laptop, make sure that one is available in the room or take it with you.

Let people know what is happening. Send out an agenda and if you are expecting anyone to present on a topic (with slides or informally), check that they know that. Communicate the session objectives, timings and the logistics for the day including whether or not you will be providing food. “Will there be lunch?” is the question I am asked the most about meetings. People like to know what snacks to bring.

When You Can’t Plan

Sometimes you are going to be thrown in at the deep end without having had time to adequately plan. For example, when you decide to have an impromptu brainstorming session, or when a project issue can’t wait for you to work out the ideal facilitation tools to use.

In those cases, you’re going to have to wing it. Generally, it’s enough to be confident and take control of the discussion, while allowing everyone to have their say. Try to put as much into practice as you can from this next section about what to do during the meeting, but recognise that you might not be able to facilitate as well as you’d like to if you haven’t had much (or any) time to prepare.

Trust me, it does get easier to dive straight in when you have had the experience of doing it a few times! You start to learn what works for a group and what your preferred style is, so consider it a good learning opportunity.

During The Meeting

All your planning has been leading up to this moment. During the meeting you are going to:

  • Chair the session
  • Make introductions and set ground rules
  • Remind people of why they are there and refresh them on the objectives of the meeting
  • Point out the Parking Lot (more on that in a moment)
  • Make sure everyone has a turn to talk
  • Run any facilitated exercises that you planned such as brainstorming or mindmapping
  • Record the actions, or have a colleague record the actions
  • Keep time, or have someone else do that for you
  • Manage the time, making sure that you cover all the agenda points
  • Summarise at the end.

The main challenge you’ll have with a facilitated discussion is making sure that you have enough time to cover everything. People do have a tendency to talk a lot, especially if your meeting is to come up with new ideas or to talk about potential solutions. Don’t be afraid to shut people down if you feel as if you are hearing things that have already been said.

Equally, you can put irrelevant topics on a flip chart headed ‘Parking Lot’. This is for ideas that are worthy of discussion, but not right now. When the conversation takes a turn away from the agenda and the topics on the table, bring the conversation to a halt and ask that interested parties follow up outside of this meeting. This is a useful technique when people start to get far into the detail.

Of course, sometimes a topic will come up that kills everything and that you have to discuss right now. Let the conversation take its natural course if that is the case. There’s no point running your session only to find out that it was pointless because this other problem needed to be resolved in a different way first.

Following Up

Facilitation doesn’t end when the meeting is over. There are several steps for a facilitator to do once all the attendees have left the room.

Tidy up. Facilitation can create a mess. You might have sticky notes on the walls, coloured pens lying around and flip chart sheets with illegible writing. Don’t leave anything in the room that shares confidential project information. In fact, don’t leave anything. Make sure that you leave the room as you would want to find it.

Write up the notes. Unless you’ve had a scribe in the session you’ll be responsible for writing up the notes. That could be transcribing process flows from flip charts or putting together a draft project schedule from the organised sticky notes.

Send out the notes. Now, send them out. Make sure they go to everyone who was in attendance and anyone who couldn’t make it as well.

Follow up. Meetings create actions. Log any actions that need to be followed up and make sure that you hold everyone accountable for the work they said they would do. Incorporate any actions into your regular chases in project team meetings, for example. If you facilitated a session for someone else, check in with them and make sure that they got what they wanted from the meeting.

The facilitation process is straightforward, but many people focus only on the part when the meeting room door closes and the attendees sit down. A lot of your effort should be on that bit, but it’s not all you have to do. Armed with these steps, you are now prepared to facilitate any session during your project.

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She is Director of The Otobos Group, a project communications consultancy and author of Social Media for Project Managers and the award-winning blog A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.

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