Are our meetings giving a return on investment?

Whilst delivering a training course recently, the perennial topic of effective meetings raised it head – again!

Several of the people on the course were quite stressed, working long hours, looking tired and generally not the happiest people on the planet! I then did a quick survey, asking the simple question, ‘On average, how many hours per week do you spend in meetings?’  The replies ranged from about 5 hours to one person spending 30+ hours per week in meetings. Each of these meetings seemed to be typically attended by about 6 people. I then asked:-

 ‘and if your company’s CEO walked into the meeting, would all participants be able to explain what the meeting was going to achieve and how they were contributing to that objective?’ 

There was some nervous shifting in chairs and mutters – I felt I touched a nerve, so not wishing to heap further pain on already stressed individuals I backed off and opened up a ‘back to basics’ session on effective meetings, this resulted in a number of delegates committing to revisit their own meeting schedules.

It seems that most of us know what we should do for a meeting (e.g. justify, plan, prepare, run, follow-up on). However it is easy to find a series of meetings that have become a routine – they have a ‘life of their own’ – and occur without much thought and even less challenge about the actual value.

In our working lives, do we start to behave like hamsters in a wheel, expending more and more energy running around the same track? If this touches a nerve for you, do yourself a favour and just do a very quick analysis of your recent time at work:-

  • How many meetings did you run / attend?
  • Was the meeting justified, was it the best way to achieve the objective?
  • Was each meeting effective and efficient, were all attendees required and able to contribute?
  • If a key stakeholder, like the company CEO, or a major shareholder in the company, walked into the room, would you be confident to explain why the meeting was happening?

If you are positive in all your answers, Gold Star, well done! – keep up the good work.

If not, maybe you have found one key to a more productive and less stressful working life.

Value Added Venues

When we start to plan workshops and events with our clients, the discussion includes the question about ‘where shall we hold this event?’

Of course there are the usual practical considerations, including cost, ease of access, capacity and facilities at the venue and the cost! At another level, we consider the opportunity the location and environment provides to enhance the event itself.

  • Transport Energy Issues

    Transport Energy Issues

    We worked with the Energy Strategy UK team to explore the future of transport energy. The workshop was held at a Transport Museum in Coventry. This venue provided an insight through a tangible record of transport energy in the past. In the workshop design we incorporated activities using these resources to ‘hover above’ today and look back and look forward. A great way to stimulate creative thinking about a future where transport may look very different to the past.

  • We worked with a Programme Manager who needed a project group, composed of very technically competent specialists to understand the interrelationship between their disciplines and how the various parts of the project formed the whole mosaic. In this case a countryside site, remote, but accessible and modest, was chosen for their monthly two-day project review workshops. The two days together in a remote location enabled the team to leave behind the shackles of the day-to-day workplace. A more collaborative style of working was established so that the specialists  were able  to deliver coherent and highly effective solutions.
  • A team needed to develop their Customer Relationship Management capability so we held their workshop at a conference venue that shares space with an up-market repair centre for prestigious cars. The venue provided a great opportunity for participants to see first-hand how the repair centre went about its work – and particularly to see the attention to detail that really makes a difference and generates referrals and repeat business.
  • Ready for Revolution

    Ready for Revolution

    We worked on a “Sandpit” event for the TSB, who were seeking projects to support radical innovation in the Long Term Care of people. We agreed on Crewe Hall,  a location that enabled visits to be made to local venues to provoke thinking. This included a visit to a local garden centre  which highlighted the intense dedication of the plant specialists, for many of them their work was much more than a means to earn money. We also planned a visit to the Methodist Chapel, which provided insight into communities, care and peaceful revolutions.

A well-chosen venue can support the overall theme of an event and can become part of the process. Seeking out interesting locations is a challenge but can often add real value to the event.

Making Things Easy: Using Three Buckets

We believe that facilitation should make things easy for people. Sometimes we develop a new method that does just that! Our Three Bucket Method is a perfect example of how we can help break down problems into easy containable elements so people can find their way through the fog.

The situation we were asked to facilitate was for a scientific study who will be starting a process of interviewing people to collect a wide range of data. The meeting we were asked to facilitate was of the Scientific Steering Group who needed to agree the final questions that would be used in the interviews. The problem was that in the pilot study there were about 60 minutes more of questions than was reasonable to ask in the time allowed.

We had one day with the Steering Group to reach consensus about which of the items should go.  There were 1,000 items in total to discuss and agree consensus on! We quickly realised that this would be a challenge and needed to be broken down into a more manageable amount.

3 buckets imageThe questions were all arranged in categories and there were 25 different categories.  We knew that it would be important to keep momentum going across the day so that these important decisions which would impact on researchers for years ahead were not rushed.

This is where the 3 Bucket Idea started to develop. By suggested that we divide up the 25 categories across 3 different “Buckets” we started to break down the challenge into bite size pieces. Each “Bucket” would be dealt with in turn using a consensus decision making process:

  1. For each Bucket session we set up three areas of the group and divided the question categories across these three areas. Each area had two- four spreadsheets to examine with the questions.
  2. The Steering Group were divided into three groups and each group took one section of the Bucket to look at. They discussed the items as a group and then individually voted with coloured dots on each individual item. They then moved to the next section of the room and repeated this process and then with the final third section.
  3. Our facilitators then looked at the Bucket and identified any questions where there was clear consensus for removal. These were quickly dealt with. Any questions which mainly seemed to be highlighted as suitable for removal were discussed.
  4. We then calculated how much time had been saved, celebrated this saving with a cup of tea and went onto the next bucket.

2014-01-29 10.49.06The process took the day but by the end of the day the required minutes had been saved. By using the 3 Buckets method we had managed to keep the energy and momentum going because there was variety throughout the day. If we had tried to do all the items in one go there would have been a very long period of sitting and trying to reach consensus.

Of course the Bucket Method is not really a “proper” method, we just used the word bucket because it seemed like a suitable metaphor when discussing the approach with our client and the word stuck! What it shows is how facilitation can add value to meeting by thinking not about the content but how to approach the content so consensus can be reached in way that supports engagement and not boredom.

Collaboration: The Key to Project Success?

In October 2012 the BBC broadcast a 2-part series by Evan Davis entitled ‘Built in Britain’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nd290.

pexels-photo-720456.jpeg

In these programmes Evan explored the potential for major infrastructure projects to act as a catalyst for reinvigorating the UK economy. In part 2, the story focused on two major projects; the high speed rail link between St Pancras /Channel Tunnel and the 2012 Olympic Park. The projects and the potential economic impact were very interesting.

The programme explored the reasons for the success of these two projects and sought to explain the reasons for our ‘new found ability to deliver complex projects successfully’. In addition to funding and engineering excellence, key project people identified a significant reason for the success of these projects in comparison to previous experiences was the contractual relationships set-up; which really encouraged people to work together – a very practical demonstration of the power of collaboration.

2017-05-18 21.12.06

This is music to the ears. For many years I have worked with projects, engineering, construction and business change projects. In my experience the most successful projects emerge when project teams really do work together and engage their stakeholders effectively.

Global Change

The Project Director inherited a global business change project that had experienced two previous false starts. The Director instigated monthly, off-site, facilitated workshops which meant from the beginning of the project all the stakeholders in the project got together to set expectations, reviewed progress and sorted out challenges that were being faced. By doing this they really pulled together.

New IT Systems

Many business change projects incorporating new IT and the solutions need to be rolled out across numerous business units in the country.  For one organisation they made a significant step towards collaboration by arranging a short sequence of facilitated project launch workshops .

During these different workshops the facilitators focused on providing processes that enabled participants to absolutely engage in the highly uncertain situations.

These workshops went much further than the traditional project kick-off meetings where PowerPoint slides are shown and contact details are exchanged. In these facilitated workshops differing viewpoints and perspectives at the start of the project were seen as enriching the process. Through a series of professionally facilitated steps, all participants were able to share, explore and ultimately shape their projects. This led to true collaboration.

Just as in the recent infrastructure projects described in the Evan Davis programme, these business change projects were all delivered very successfully.

Perhaps the evidence points to an emergent clue – the key that unlocks a stream of successful projects – true collaboration requires time together to build trust and engagement
Talk to us about how we can help you to set up early project team engagement sessions  info@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

 

Facilitation Must Be More than Fun

Inevitably when we commence planning with clients / potential clients we hold discussions with the leader – the champions of the cause.

In two recent examples comments have been made that set alarm bells ringing. One client said, “I hope you are not going to get us to play silly games, a recent facilitator had us throwing cushions around the room, someone ended up with broken glasses, I’ve no idea why we did that”. Another client recalled having some fun painting tee-shirts, but didn’t feel there was any relevance to the workshop.

This set me thinking. We start with the premise that the role of the facilitator is to provide the group / team with processes that enable them to (more) effectively address a defined purpose. We find that whilst there is often a need to explain and sometimes justify our proposal to include a certain exercise before we run it, we have not encountered examples where after the exercise has run people, especially the leader, dismiss it as ‘silly’ or a ‘waste of time’.

It seems that, at best, some facilitators are failing to communicate the purpose of their exercises, at worst, perhaps, some are including disparate activities without purpose to the fill the time. We believe that this is bad news for the franchise that is ‘facilitation’. Our aim should be to provide effective processes that are ‘fit for purpose’. Maybe, sometimes, an exercise fails to work / deliver the desired progress; this can and does happen, the professional response should be to say so, to regroup and address the need in a more appropriate manner.  This should be transparent to all involved so that people will not go away muttering ‘I’ve no idea why we did that’.

We are not being spoil sports, ‘fun’ exercises can be very usefully incorporated into team building and creative learning events, but let’s make sure that they really do fit and ensure they are highlighted in context to participants.

Nigel Chapman, Centre for Facilitation

nigelchapman@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

Board meetings and facilitation; an unnatural partnership?

A luxurious board room, dominated by an imposing table with heavy chairs placed around it. A Chairman exuding authority, calmness and control. Apologies for absence taken and the minutes of the last meeting accepted. Each item of business carefully recorded by the secretary, with Board members subtly attracting the attention of the Chair when they wish to speak. The meeting creeps from item to item until each member is asked for “Any Other Business” and the date of the next meeting is agreed.
• Is this a tried and tested format which works well and shouldn’t be messed with?
 • Or an old fashioned way of doing business which doesn’t allow for true creativity and problem solving, and holds organisations back?
At the Centre for Facilitation, our experience shows that there are some occasions when flexibility may help a Board of Directors to do business more effectively. The critical point, of course, is “does it help them achieve their business objectives?” There is nothing worse than a facilitator entering a board room, asking members to jump out of their seats, moving people around, posting flipcharts on the walls, and generally putting participants well out of their comfort zone – unless these activities are clearly linked to the business of the day. However, even if the facilitator makes a link, this type of disruption to normal procedures may be the quickest way for them to be thrown out of the room and never asked back.
It is an obvious conclusion, but a facilitator must know the audience and how far they may or may not be prepared to move from their normal way of working.

  • Talking to and understanding the Chair’s requirements before the meeting.
  • Ensuring that the objectives of the meeting (or individual items) are clear
  • Finding an appropriate process for each item which achieves the stated objective,

are the essential skills of the facilitator. Only then can the Chair and the facilitator (together) agree a plan for running the meeting, which may or may not require some aspects of the meeting to divert from traditional practice.

One example might be if there is an item on “reviewing the performance of x / y / z and determining future investment of these areas”. The item may need to begin with a more traditional form of presentation or review of each area, but then the facilitator can help the Board reach a decision more effectively through – for example – asking each member to generate their own list of criteria for investment, displaying the joint list and then asking them to score each department objectively against the new criteria, either as individuals, in smaller groups, or (if time) as a whole group. The business benefit of the smaller group activity is that the whole Board can reach a decision more quickly, because every member can contribute to the scoring without having to wait for their turn.

With a skilled facilitator, Board meetings of the future could consist of something like… a luxurious board room, dominated by an imposing table with heavy chairs placed around it. A Chairman exuding authority, calmness and control. A facilitator helping the group to achieve their business objectives through the introduction of a range of methods. The approach always maintain the interest of members, may involve moving briefly to another room, retains the traditional approach when it is required for information exchange or voting, and above all, moves the business forward through a complete focus on business objectives.
Clare Howard
clarehoward@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

Home Early: Good or Bad?

Whenever I run sessions, the question “We are really doing well – how would you feel if we had a shorter lunch and tried to finish earlier in the day?” is usually greeted with universal enthusiasm. Occasionally, however, there are people who prefer to stick to an agreed and advertised end time rather than find themselves with an unexpected half hour’s free time. This was driven home to me during a recent session when one participant felt aggrieved that the outcome had been achieved earlier than she had expected, and the day finished at 4pm instead of the advertised 4.30pm.
Of course, as we all know, people have different preferences when it comes to sticking to a schedule. More importantly, a good facilitator will know when the timings have to be “flexed” to allow for penetrating and valuable debate on an issue which, although timed for maybe 60 minutes, is clearly taking longer to solve. Similarly, we have to know when a discussion is not achieving its desired outcome and needs to be cut short and the process changed to enable a different method to be used to achieve the required result.
I think the key skill lies in flexing the timings accordingly within the agreed start and end point to a day, without finishing late, and yet taking into account those (admittedly few) people who may get upset if you finish early. One solution I find works ( on the enjoyable occasions when a range of facilitated techniques have resulted in an early conclusion) is to warn participants that the timings may be cut short, but that the session will still be “live” and open for further discussion for those who wish to stay until the appointed end time. This works well because although the formal debate has concluded, and results captured, the informal networking and sparking of ideas can continue.
Of course, this means that the facilitator needs to be on hand, and still working hard, right up to that appointed time, but after all that is what we are paid for!

clarehoward@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

What Makes Change Programmes Stick?

Currently I am working on four independent pieces of work which can be described as business change. These involve, to varying degrees, changed ways of working, new IT solutions, strategic initiatives to address the market. All have in common the desire to improve the organisation. In every case there is a senior sponsor holding some fairly clear thoughts on the need for the change but not so sure about the means to achieve. Ultimately what is achieved from all of these various programmes will be largely dependent upon the extent to which people grasp the change and make it happen.
I am quietly very confident that all of these programmes will be successful. Yet this seems at odds with the numerous surveys that would suggest that as many as 3 out of 4 change programmes fail to meet expectations. In a way it feels as though we have grown change programmes into monsters – and they scare us! This often leads to a response that mobilises various resources, books, courses, consultants, complex models which in turn either leads to confusion or paralysis or both. Does this have to be so? I think not!

At the heart of many, if not all, change programmes – are people. All sorts of people, people who have identified the need for change (sponsors), people who agree the need (advocates), people who feel threatened by the change, people who can bring potentially useful specialist expertise and other people, probably the majority, who either haven’t heard about the change programme at all, or if they have – just wonder what is going on.

If the situation described above is the reality, then it seems that fundamentally that to move forward and to build momentum it is simple…. people need to talk to each other. However, somehow this gets lost in the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day pressures. Combine this with the noise from the advice and teachings of the books, courses, consultants, complex models and the desire to be ‘seen to be doing something’ and surprise, surprise whatever results are, or are not delivered, there are always massive gaps versus expectations.

Compare this to my current role as a facilitator on the four different change programmes. In each case I am working closely with the sponsors to ensure that we create the appropriate environment for people to be able to talk to each other. Of course, it is not just to talk, it is to listen, to ask questions, to challenge, to propose, to explore and to listen again – so that everyone builds a shared understanding, not only of what the change is aiming to achieve, but also how they can shape, influence, contribute to –  and ultimately own the change. I know how important these discussions will be in making the change stick and I am looking forward to observing how powerful this seemingly simple process is in practice.

nigelchapman@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

Is fun out of fashion in the workplace?

As a facilitator I regularly meet people in their business environment. It is evident that one of the more significant changes in the last decade is the step back to increased formality.  I now see much less evidence of informal relationships between colleagues, I am struck by the ever dwindling number of people smiling, laughing and having fun with their colleagues..

Before and after meetings and during breaks there is much less of the old hum of conversation and banter. Breaks are dominated by smartphone activity and it seems that many  people  have a better relationship with their phone than with their colleagues.  When I get the opportunity to chat to participants and ask whether they feel the world of work is as much fun now as it used to be most agree that it isn’t; and that they are not as motivated or energised.  Whilst it would be wrong to conclude these are connected, it is within the realms of possibility.

A great deal of research has concluded that laughter and fun are one of life’s best medicines with many positive physiological and psychological effects on us.  In particular they maintain positive attitudes and reduce stress levels.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laughter

I have been experimenting whilst facilitating meetings by dedicating a little time to fun and laughter creation with a few short simple activities and noting reactions afterwards.  I am always intrigued too find a greater engagement between and productivity and to observe the effects of this last around two hours .

I subsequently decided to include a question about participant’s impressions of the impact of this in my evaluations asking “Was the fun activity positive or negative and in what way?”  Astoundingly, all completed evaluations so far indicate a positive impact irrespective of personality profiles or behavioural preferences.

Benefits quoted included:

We were less hostile to new ideas

It changed mindsets from critical to positive

I gained the confidence to speak up

And the top two comments were:

We were more focussed on our goals and got there faster

We began to listen to others as well as the sound of our own voices

Five Tips for Increasing Engagement

Based on my action research these are my top tips if you want to increase dynamism and engagement into your meetings through the use of some simple fun activities:

1)      Keep each activity short. Between 5 and 20 minutes.

2)      Ensure everyone is able to be fully involved and nobody is able to ‘sit on the sidelines.

3)      Select activities that have grown up appeal and will embarrass nobody – i.e. stick to problem solving rather than making animal noises or playing ‘truth or dare’. This may be great fun for some but will be horrific for the majority.

4)      Use activities on the spur of a moment, when a meeting reaches a sticky or dull point is always better than interrupting a part of a meeting that is productive.

5)      Finish by discussing a few questions such as:

  • Did you enjoy that? (Check. Don’t assume)
  • Why?
  • What do you anticipate the impact to be on the rest of this meeting?
  • What will you do to maintain this impact?

Pause for Reflection

What can you do  to increase fun and laughter at work?  Are you able take the challenge of improving fun and laughter in your world of work seriously? Is it time to bring fun back into fashion?

LucyBrownsdon@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

Innovation: Time for Reflection

Many of our facilitated events are designed to develop innovative approaches to current problems. The activities that are often used to explore innovation tend to focus on energetic activities which engage participants with each other and encourage a free flowing dialogue.

These are often great and do create energy and ideas. What has troubled me for a long time has been that these types of activities are well received by extrovert types but the quieter, more reflective type of participant will often be observed on the edges of these activities. There is an assumption that creativity is needs noise and activity to be truly “out of the box thinking”.

There have been many critiques already about this approach to creativity http://bit.ly/paspNY My own personal experience is that whilst some great ideas have emerged from conversations with others some of the best ideas have emerged during quieter periods of thinking often when swimming or travelling.

I wanted to experiment with bringing some quieter reflective activity into an innovation event and started exploring different approaches. One approach I really liked came out of my work within Software engineering companies where we had been exploring the use of Agile as a method of project management. A book related to this project was “Agile Retrospectives: making good teams great” http://bit.ly/qRGNol

I adapted an idea from here on Reflective Writing for my innovation conference. We had a group of 40 people and they were working on tables of 5 people. We held the reflection session after two days of input and activity. Each participant had 10 minutes to reflect on the ideas that had emerged so far and was asked to write or draw the thoughts that emerged. After 10 minutes they passed their work to the next person in the group who then added their thoughts and comments to the work, until the work had gone round the small group. The group then discussed the emerging themes and the light bulb moments during this activity.

One of the amazing experiences was being in a conference room with 40 people with no noise at all, it made me realise how little peace we provide at events for people just to sit back and reflect. The activity produced some fascinating insights which were shared as wall posts for others to read at a later stage.

One area I do want to develop with this technique is how best to use it with people who do not want to write things down, they would be happy talking about it but not writing for various reasons. How do we keep them engaged but also keep the quiet which seems such an important principle.

christinebell@centreforfacilitation.co.uk