ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

December 1999


Back To The Future In 2000

Purpose, Planning and Preparing

Get In Touch With Your Emotions

No Gimmicks. No Frills. Just The Facts

Ritz-Carlton Again


What A Differnce A Space Makes
by Peter Block


Brief Cases

Diary of a Shutdown

Views for a Change



Purpose, Planning And Preparing
Facilitators Make Meetings Work

Remember the clever “Plan Ahead” signs that sprouted on desks across the nation several years ago? They suggest both admonition and ammunition for Martha Curry’s insistence that “Successful meetings don’t just happen—they’re facilitated.” Everyone has been either a participant or a sponsor of a poorly planned meeting, seminar or conference. Perhaps what we have all been missing is a good facilitator.
An associate of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service center in Covington, Ky., Curry is instrumental in conducting quality improvement programs for the IRS and served as an examiner for President Clinton’s Quality Award program. She also worked as a member of Vice President Al Gore’s Customer Service Task Force.

Make It Happen
“Good meetings don’t just happen because someone wants them to,” Curry says. Meetings have to be planned. Echoing an expression used during the days of World War II gas rationing, her first pre-meeting question to put before management asks, “Is this trip necessary? If so, what is its purpose? Where do you want the meeting to go?”
Curry goes on to admit that the team leader or manager can probably answer these questions and come up with an agenda, but she hastens to point out, it is the facilitator who serves as the catalyst. Not a member of the team or a meeting participant, it is the facilitator who can step back to observe the activity and to comment on the group process. Performing as coordinator, helper, guide, teacher, referee and coach, an experienced facilitator knows how the process works and can keep the meeting participants focused on the pertinent issue or issues.

Separate Roles, Same Purpose
In a breakdown of meeting management responsibilities, Curry sees the manager and/or team leader: planning and finalizing the agenda; being an active member; serving as a model of appropriate behavior; establishing ground rules; and keeping the meeting focused. Facilitator duties are a step removed and include coaching the team leader, helping the group to evaluate itself, identifying problematic behavior or dynamics, intervening to correct such problems and providing feedback to facilitate group or team growth.
Together, they champion the process, focus group energy, encourage all participants to share relevant information, promote consensus decision making and establish a climate of openness and cooperation.
ssssHow then do the manager/team leader and facilitator know where their responsibilities begin and end?
ssss“They develop a contract to formalize the roles each will play. Sometimes merely verbal, better put into writing, it ensures a mutual understanding,” Curry explains.

Setting an Agenda
According to Curry, “A meeting agenda is all-important.” She uses as an example the familiar experience of a company Christmas party. In this era of political correctness, will it still be called a Christmas party, or is it to be a Holiday or Yuletide celebration? Will there be refreshments? Who’s to be responsible for them? Who will be responsible for the location? For the decorations? Will there be a gift exchange? And so on, ad infinitum.
ssssCurry goes on to stress the need for those attending the meeting to have a copy of the agenda well in advance.
dddd“Participants need to know what it is that will be discussed and who else will be invited. The agenda should list the topics to be discussed and have a suggested time frame.”

Success Is In the Details
Meeting content is, however, only a part of the facilitator’s concern, of equal importance are the overall arrangements for the meeting.
sarah“If this meeting is to go on for more than an hour, should there be a mid-session break? If so, will there be coffee or water on hand? Should beepers be turned off? What about cell phones? Ten years ago, these concerns did not exist. In today’s meetings, they often cause untimely interruptions. Is the room large enough for the anticipated number of members? How many chairs must be provided?”
sarhc“If 25 people have been invited and there are only 16 chairs, you’re in trouble even before the meeting gets under way,” Curry says with a laugh, pausing to add that often this is no laughing matter.
sarah“The lack of seating space can alter attitudes. Latecomers with no place to sit tend to feel unwanted.”
sarah“If they didn’t think I’d show up, why did they invite me?” They ask themselves, “Why did I even bother to come to this dumb meeting?”
sarahCurry also stresses the facilitator’s duties in working with the leader or team manager in setting meeting ground rules. The agenda order must be closely followed; only one person may speak at a time; everyone must be drawn into the discussion; contributions must come from all the participants; listeners may question a speaker, but no personal attacks will be tolerated.

Take It to the Parking Lot
But what happens if the Christmas party budget is under discussion and someone brings up the fact that the flower fund needs financial resuscitation?
sarah“That’s why meetings need a parking lot,” Curry says with a grin. A parking lot?
sarah“Yes, that’s what I call it,” she explains. “On the front board or on a flip-chart page, we write ‘Parking Lot,’ and any non-related item brought into the discussion swiftly goes into that category. If we finish before the announced adjournment time, then those issues will be addressed. But there are no promises. The meeting sticks to its published agenda and its announced purpose.”
sarahAnother Curry-ism is her mention of “the 100 mile rule.”
sarah“Most of our IRS meetings bring together people who know each other, who may share adjacent offices and who probably work in the same building where we happen to be meeting. So I suggest that we forget our familiar surroundings and pretend to be meeting in a conference center at least a hundred miles away. We are strangers, gathered together to discuss agenda issues objectively. That whimsical image often keeps the meeting more firmly focused.”
sarahCurry also recommends the use of visuals, especially a flip-chart. “Don’t be afraid to write in big letters,” she advises. “If the people at the rear of the room can’t read the agenda item being discussed, you’re losing them. Don’t use numbers for the items, either. Numbers become confusing, especially when flip-chart pages are being turned frequently. Try different colors of crayon or chalk. It keeps the items separated. Besides, I think a colorful chart looks pretty.”

Making It Easy
According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, “facile” means “making easy” and Curry sees making the meeting work easier as the primary responsibility of the facilitator. In that context, she mentions six questions that can help the facilitator guide a group’s planning so that meetings can be more productive and enjoyable:
sarahFirst, why are we having this meeting?
sarahSecond, who should be at the meeting?
sarahThird, do we have an agenda?
sarahFourth, what roles are needed to conduct the meeting successfully?
sarahFifth, what kind of meeting environment will you have?
sarahFinally, what follow-up will occur after the meeting?
sarah“Pre- and post-meetings between the facilitator and leader/manager are ideal times to develop answers and plans that will guide the group,” Curry explains, adding that, “By being able to answer each of these six questions, the facilitator will ensure that the group is on the road to a successful meeting.”
Curry also recommends that agendas close with a summarization of the items discussed, pointing out that a final review reinforces actions taken and leaves participants with a feeling of accomplishment.

Changing With the Times
Hit movies have directors, winning teams have top-notch coaches and according to Martha Curry, successful meetings don’t “just happen.” They require the input of an experienced facilitator. Summarizing this effort to improve team meetings, Curry resorts to a familiar adage: “If you always do what you always did, you only get what you always got.”

December '99 News for a Change | E-mail Editor
  • Print this page
  • Save this page

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this item

View comments
Add comments
Comments FAQ

ASQ News