For the past three decades I have been facilitating strategic planning sessions for client organizations. It’s something that I enjoy doing. It is a role that has brought me in front of hundreds of groups of people in North America and Europe. However, I am the first to admit that it isn’t what I do that adds luster to my resume, it’s the people and groups that I have been associated with.
In fact, the term “facilitator” doesn’t engender warm feelings. It seems that too many people have had experiences attending offsite meetings which were frustrating, pointless and in some cases destructive. That puts facilitated meetings behind dentists’ offices as desired locations. Nobody likes root canal surgery, but most agree that it is a necessary activity to achieve a good outcome. So, we have two potential problems with facilitated meetings: the activity be considered undesirable and the outcome may be less than beneficial. That is unfortunate because both the experience and the benefits should be a lot more positive.
Let’s consider what makes a facilitated strategic planning session successful. There are three elements.
- Its about the process. Planning and conducting a facilitated session is all about the process. There must be a proper sequence of linked steps that are undertaken by the group, which will result in an agreed outcome. If you can’t flowchart the meeting process, it is likely a broken process. It will be a roadmap to nowhere.
- It requires leadership. Leadership is a shared responsibility but not necessarily overlapping. The facilitator must be responsible for the management of the process. The client leaders must be responsible to adhere to the process, but more importantly to invest their energies within the process.
- It means living up to the decisions. If a group invests their time and comes to a consensus on a path forward, it is essential that a commitment be made to honor their mutual decisions through collective actions.
When I refer to the process, I mean a proven process. It may be alright for some kinds of professionals to “wing it”, but I’m certain that business meetings need to be conducted in a manner that has been proven to achieve the desired results. Facilitators don’t need to be the funniest person in the room. They don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. But they must be the most prepared person in the room and recognize who the smartest people are. I have not had a failed meeting in my career. I have had meetings that were exhilarating. I have had meetings that were less so, but never a session that did not live up to its stated purpose. This is because I use only proven processes.
Demonstrated leadership involves differentiated leadership. The facilitator must be the exclusive manager of the process. If the clients begin to say, “what if we did the meeting slightly differently…”, the facilitator is in dangerous waters and so is the client organization. If the facilitator gives up the management of the process to the clients, the session is likely in mortal jeopardy. The client leaders need to invest their time and energies to a consideration of the consequential questions regarding the future of their organization. Facilitators cannot compensate for a lack of zeal on the part of client leaders.
Living up to the outcomes speaks not just to the quality of the session but the culture of the organization. If employees know that facilitated meetings are always followed by inaction within their organization, it will undermine the next facilitated planning meeting. The session will be approached with skepticism and tepid participation. It is the responsibility of a facilitator to address commitment issues at the end of every meeting. Identifying next steps is a minimum concluding item. Client leaders must own the results of their sessions.
In my experience, a good facilitator using a proven process, together with committed participants should result in clients saying “that was a couple of our best business days…”
So, the next time they hear “we hired a strategic planning facilitator”, there will be no comparisons to the dentist.