A critical element to a productive session is the agenda. It shouldn’t be overly detailed, and it needs to be objective. Don’t skew the agenda based on your opinion of where the discussion will go, because you don’t know exactly where it may lead (and won’t you look foolish if you were wrong). A good agenda is topical without leading; it drives the meeting while maintaining some flexibility should the unexpected arise. A good facilitator will know when and how to seize an opportunity that was not on the agenda.
Briefly talk through the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, so participants understand where the discussion is going. Build breaks into the agendas so people can see in advance exactly when they will be able to check their email and voice mail and make a quick call. (And keep the breaks to 15 minutes, so they can do what they need to do without wandering off too far.) It’s important at this point to gently and respectfully ask people to set aside their Blackberries and iPhones during the meeting. If you’ve ever had a good thought on the tip of your tongue, you know how little it takes to zap it away; a ringing or vibrating phone can do that in an instant. Ask everyone to agree to this policy out of respect. If someone has an exception (“I’m awaiting an important call from my son”), the group can agree to the exception. This accountability will keep you from having to be the sole enforcer.
Create a “Table” sheet up front in your discussion, and explain what it is. Your Table is a page in your flip chart for items that require more discussion at a later time (but not at the moment they are brought up). If you write an item on the Table, people are more likely to let it drop for the time being. Build time into the agenda at the end of the session to at least discuss when and where those tabled items can be addressed.
End on time! That means you need to address tabled items, discuss next steps and start wrapping up the meeting about 15 minutes before the scheduled end time. If, under some strange circumstance, your gut tells you it’s critical to continue, you need to get permission from the people in the room. If the consensus is that you need to stop, say, “It sounds like there is a lot more here to discuss. Can we schedule another time soon to address these remaining ideas?”
Next Facilitation topic from Girl on the Roof: Introductions