Skip to main content

Strategy Spotlight: 7 Common Challenges faced by You, the Facilitator

We all make meeting facilitation mistakes. I know I have made a few. Sometimes you can recover and other times you cannot.

I know that when I make a mistake in a facilitation session, I feel really bad for days. It impacts me personally. There are several reasons why; first, I pride myself on helping organizations discuss issues and come up with solutions; second, I believe my job is to make my sponsor and the people around me look good; third, I prepare like crazy and like to have everything vetted and completed at least a week in advance.

Related Article: Master These 7 Skills to Become an Excellent Interviewer

But sometimes things happen and you just don’t deliver. I hate it when this happens.

I have been thinking lately about the mistakes we make that derail a facilitation session. Here’s what I came up with.

Advanced Preparation

Sometimes I think I spend way too much time preparing for a session. Over the years I have learned that anything that takes you out of your schedule for a day (8 hours) usually takes 40 to 60 hours to prepare. That is why it is so important to have good preparation time and be prepared at least a week before the session starts. Usually, when doing advance preparation, I like to survey a cross-section of the attendees, interview several attendees, get clear on the agenda prior to preparing anything and then only prepare what really needs to be delivered.

Ensure You Have the Right Topics

This goes back to advance preparation. When I reflect back on my best sessions, it was a team effort. Usually at least 2 client representatives, and maybe another subject matter expert, who are fully engaged in the process to ensure we have the right business problem to solve and approach the topic and issues appropriately.

One thing I have learned from experience, if my gut doesn’t feel right about something, then we are going in the wrong direction. When that happens, speak up and have the tough conversation with your preparation team.

Thinking Any Discussion is a Good Idea

Having a discussion for discussion sake does not make any sense. Facilitation is about getting people to participate in the information gathering process, and training is about imparting information to people. These are related but different.

Recently I ran into a situation where I was using the insight of someone else to prepare for a session and ended up in doing a bit of a training session, not a facilitation session. My point for this group was they needed to have a format planning structure in place that focused their organization. But that is not what they needed. Fortunately, between the break I switched gears and in the second half I turned things around. But I was only able to do that because I had prepared backup materials.

It was good to have the first discussion but great that we had the second discussion.

Know the People in the Room and at the Session

I pride myself on knowing the participants before going into a session, especially when there are multiple stakeholder groups present. This is about people and group dynamics. Again this is a preparation thing. But given the opportunity, I meet as many of the participants as possible who have thoughts on what we are seeking to achieve. My preference is to profile the stakeholders ahead of time to get an idea of their working-selves, to make connections and relationships in advance so I have people to call on to help me out and to get a big picture on how the group interacts. I find that when I miss getting a good group profile I am not as sharp and I have to work harder and earn the trust of the people in the room. This is also true if I am out-of-practice.

Connecting with People at the Beginning of the Session

Related to the last point but a bit different. I know name tags, introductions, and an icebreaker game goes a long way to connect with people. Other times it is about grabbing them and engaging them early on, so there is a connection between you and the group you are working with. That’s why I show up early, meet and greet people, chat about common interests and do my best to find out something about the team. Sometimes I am surprised by how energized people are, sometimes how disconnected they are and other times how civil people are.

Recently I had a program to facilitate and was seeking an opener that would allow me to connect with the participants. I sent my sponsor some ideas, but the suggestions got killed. When I asked my sponsor a recommended opener, they did not provide the best advice. So I made the mistake of just diving in when I should have stepped back and simply asked an unusual question and got everyone to give an unusual answer. Now would this have worked for this group, maybe or maybe not?

My point, always start by connecting with people.

Making Sure you have a Feedback Loop

As hard as this might be, I believe it is of paramount importance. Having a debrief session or discussion is the only way you can make improvements or correct any errors you have made or that took place during the session. It is great to do debriefing sessions when everything is wonderful, but when you have missed the mark, that is when debriefing is hard.

I believe in structure and engagement. So you need to request feedback about a meeting as a whole and about the facilitation specifically. Hopefully, if things did not go well, it was not completely on your shoulders. But I don’t think that is a reality.

As difficult as it is, one thing I have learned, when things don’t go totally to plan there are usually other factors at play that maybe were misunderstood, not communicated, or misguided.

For example, I once did a half-day session with 40 people. The objective was to discuss ways to improve the organization. No one told me that just before we started, the CEO announced that they were cutting 1/3 of all positions. No one in the session said anything; I didn’t know and I left feeling like I failed. It was only three days later that I found out what had happened. From the ‘get-go’ I was the scapegoat. I found out during a feedback session.

Invest in Yourself as a Facilitator

Facilitation is part science and part art. You need to train and practice. I know for me, when things go wrong I go back to my training and see what I could do differently. When things go right, I go back to my training to see what I could do differently. Good facilitators make it look easy. Investing in yourself as a facilitator can really make a difference, even if you are training, coaching and mentoring others. So find a place to work on your facilitation skills and practice.

Final Thoughts

I am sure I could cover a lot more items for this topic. But I guess this is my confession; after a long career with a ton of experience, there are times I make mistakes.

There are many things that can go right or go wrong when it comes to facilitation. The sessions that worked well often meant that we had the preparation time, sponsor and stakeholder engagement, good direction and clarity on goals, objectives, and outcomes way before the session work began. But that does not mean that every session goes as planned. I have been in many sessions where we got derailed because suddenly the CEO didn’t get it, but the management team did, the Enterprise VP provided poorly defined business problem and driver statements, or the program manager requested a training approach, approved materials only to discover that all these people really needed was a conversation, someone to listen to them, ask questions and create a list of possible solutions and outcomes.

Here’s the thing, success rests on the facilitator’s shoulders no matter what happens. Like Paul Simon said in the song Something So Right, “When something goes wrong, I’m the first to admit it, I’m the first to admit it, but the last one to know.”

I think facilitation is like those words. As a facilitator, it is great when everything goes right, but it’s tough when things go wrong. But you need to be the first to admit it, even if you are the last one to know.

Do your best,
Invest in the success of others,
Make your journey count.