So you’ve been hired to facilitate a strategic planning session for a new client group or team. You want to offer maximum value, and you definitely do NOT want to get blindsided by unexpected eruptions from the Board or staff, or by your own ignorance of their culture, context or decision-making protocols. How do you best begin scoping the project?
As with all facilitation, investing in solid preparation pays off in the form of a richer, better use of precious face-to-face time. I was recently doing a little technical coaching for another facilitator, as she got ready to shepherd a campaign strategy session with a first-time client. It got me thinking about the sorts of questions I typically ask at the beginning of a new project. Some of these questions would also be useful when doing a fuller assessment at the beginning of an organizational change initiative, although that would require more robust preparation. Meanwhile, here’s a list of things to consider even for facilitating a one-off meeting.
- Purpose: Why now? What is the overarching purpose of this session?
- Outcomes: What would “wild success” look like for this session, specifically? What specific outcomes might the team be hoping for?
- Timing: Where does this session fit contextually – is it part of a larger planning process? At the tail end of one? Are folks exhausted from planning? Excited and eager?
- Experience: What planning frameworks and processes has this group done in the past? What about the styles and approaches of past facilitators?
- Attitudes: What are the attitudes folks have toward planning in general? (Flakey? Waste of time? Exciting? Overdue?)
- Energy: How much bandwidth do folks have for this process?
- Conflict: How is conflict handled by the group, traditionally?
- Norms: How are decisions made in this group (Consensus? Majority voting? One decision-maker?) And who makes them – Board only? Executive and Management Team only? Everyone? Is it different for certain kinds of decisions?
- Decision-makers: Does anyone NOT in the room need to be consulted before decisions are final? This is almost always the case for coalition meetings, for example.
Scoping out the participants can be tricky, but the more I can know about who’s going to be in the room – and who isn’t – the more I can tailor the agenda design to the group’s real needs. So I might ask:
- Participants: Who’s going to be in the room in terms of:
- rank and power
- institutional knowledge/history
- relationships and influence
- skills, including strategic ability and experience
- Is the Board included in the session? Staff? What about key consultants or partners? What about founding directors? Why or why not?
- What about participants’ primary leadership styles? Do they tend to be focused on details? Great at generating ideas/innovative? Tend to highlight risks/downsides? Tend to highlight possible benefits/upsides? Comfortable or even drawn to conflict? Conflict-averse?
- Influencers: And here’s a key one: who’s NOT going to be in the room that has influence on the dynamics or the outcome from the outside?
- Pre-work: How much pre-work can we do in terms of sharing information through prepared briefing notes or other materials? Examples might include:
- Having group members prepare advance briefing notes to bring everyone up to speed on key topics in advance
- Conducting interviews and/or on-line surveys
- Conducting pre-session scoping meetings or focus groups with smaller numbers of the team?
- Any other research or data-gathering that I or someone on the team might need to do to make the best use of our face to face time together
- Orientation: What do I need to know about the group’s culture and ‘language’? For example, I once needed to develop a glossary of acronyms before being able to effectively work with one science-based land use coalition, in order to keep up with flipcharting and the direction of the content. With other groups I’ve needed to memorize the spelling and pronunciation of traditional First Nation names. With some, I’ve needed to avoid terms like “energy” (“atmosphere” might be OK) or business planning concepts like “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).
- Documentation: How will decisions be documented? This is key. If no one takes notes, or if the group relies only on my short-hand flipchart notes, there’s a risk that key decisions and ideas won’t be carried forward – rendering the whole exercise a waste of time. And note-taking is a critical skill – it requires being able to listen, type and sort for key ideas at the same time; it is a powerful role, not at all a ‘junior’ one as some mistakenly assume
- Venue: What kind of physical space will we have? Natural light? Access to outdoors? Easy access to breakout spaces? Room to stand and spread out? Ample space for posting flipcharts?
- Room set-up: What kind of restrictions might we have in terms of room set-up? For example, seating arrangements need to account for some participants joining in as ‘disembodied beings’ by speakerphone, skype, or videoconference. Seats might also need to be adjusted if everyone needs to be able to face a single wall to view a visual presentation.
- Location: What about the location – is it easy to access by transit or bike? Is there access to outdoors with the option of doing any work outside?
- Food and drinks: What about food and refreshments? I strongly advise having beverages (at least tea/coffee, herbal tea and plenty of water) at the outset of the session, and for every break – that way participants can refresh themselves throughout the day. I also advise that all break snacks include healthy, high fibre finger foods: nuts, fresh fruit, raw veggies, possibly cheese or yoghurt – with the addition of carby, sugary wheat-based things like muffins as an option. Usually it’s the other way around: all starch and sugar, which pretty well guarantees a group-wide sugar crash at about 2 pm
- Timing: Are there fixed times for lunch or breaks? I generally try to schedule breaks every 90 minutes; is that an option? Do we need extra time prior to the meeting to set up the room or will that be done by the facility? Do we need to push the start time back due to any participants commuting in that morning?
- Equipment: What kind of equipment will be provided? Typical equipment includes: at least one flipchart pad and stand; odor-free markers (some participants are sensitive); masking tape; various sizes and colours of Post-it notes; sticky dots for “dotmocracy” exercises; an LCD projector, table, and 3-pronged extension cords, along with various Mac laptop adapters for the projector. I always have my own portable equipment for local work, but often rely on clients to provide these items when I’m working out of town.
Do you have other questions you typically ask? War stories to share about the impact of NOT asking certain questions? I’d love to hear them!