Facilitation: A hygiene factor or an under-valued superpower?

If you were to calculate the hours you’ve spent on Zoom calls since the start of lockdown, what proportion would you say have been progressive and value add?

As we’ve all settled into our working from home environments, I would guess there are few people who haven’t at one time or another felt some form of Zoom (insert other video conferencing platform) fatigue. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, people are spending their days on back-to-back calls and this is being seen as a sign of productivity. Secondly, I would argue that the virtual meetings people are in are not delivering the progress that’s needed. There is frustration about wasted time or not getting to the crux of an issue or problem.  

For a lot of us, our people are our most costly resource and yet the meeting culture within our organisations doesn’t come under scrutiny. I remember sitting on a conference call once for three hours and trying to calculate the cost to the business of what was a very unproductive session. Thousands, tens of thousands. I lost track. How have meetings become such a black hole of money? Don’t we owe it to our organisations and to our people to change this? More than that, can we afford not to?

We have an expectation that everyone should be able to conduct a brilliant meeting, that this should be a hygiene factor of anyone working in a business. But the reality is quite different.  

There is an art to facilitation. And many managers and leaders haven’t been trained in this. Couple this with a virtual world where the dynamics are totally different, where confrontation or even points of productive tension are even less likely than they are in person. Where people are virtually present but digitally distracted. Where it is easy to go on mute and stay there, without the awkwardness of silence. Where we drop-off on the hour with a comment to the organiser and rush for our next call without real clarity on the next steps, or the headspace to prepare for our next conversation. Yes, this is perhaps the more pessimistic view but from personal experience it is not uncommon, and it is causing too much waste in our organisations.

We need meetings. We need collaboration and diversity of thinking. They’re pivotal in how we get the most out of our teams and ensure the right voices are heard. In how we problem solve. In how we challenge each other, ask the right questions and continue to move forwards. Now more than ever there are fundamental conversations we all need to have other to drive change internally.

So how do we maximise our collaborative efforts? How do get the most out of our conversations? How do we deliver progress as well as productivity?

A few things are absolutely essential:

1. A clear agenda designed to reach the desired and agreed outcome. Realistic, practical and engaging.  

2. Agreements to give people permission to stay on track, speak their mind, whatever you need them to do.  

3. Space for conversation. It takes time to properly digest information and contribute, so give people appropriate space and time for thinking exercises.

4. Getting people to share back thoughts and reflections can be the most insightful part of a meeting. Ensure there is time for conversation where everyone can share their voice.

5. Mindsets can be the easiest differentiator between a productive session and a waste of time. Is everyone aware of the mindset they need to be in?  

6.  Focusing-in on and encouraging productive tension.Unless we’re pushing to the point of tension, are we pushing hard enough? I would argue that when it comes to key conversations in 9/10 probably not. Enough of the niceties, they keep us in the slow lane of BAU. Progress is hard. Change is hard. As uncomfortable as it may feel, tension is needed for us to explore new opportunities and push our thinking.

7. Consider all personality types. How can you get the most of everybody regardless of their personal way of working? We need diversity of thinking which means considering the diverse ways in which you get the most out of people.

8. How will people be accountable leaving the session? This should be designed into the agenda and not an afterthought that comes out during the meeting or worse, a long silence before everyone hangs up waiting for people to put their hands up for something.

9. Anything virtual feels harder and riskier. Keeping people engaged for the entirety of your virtual session is a tough. Be realistic about timings. In our experience 3.5 hours is the longest you can have a virtual, productive meeting for. If you need more time break it down over days, don’t pack it in in the interest of ‘time’, it will be wasted time.

10. Be aware that whoever is running the session may influence the outcome. “I can’t say that in front of my boss,” “I know they won’t agree with this, so I am not going to say it,” “they’ll make up their own mind so there is no point sharing my contribution.” Sound familiar?  

We would argue that facilitation is an under-valued superpower and that organisations need this skill now more than ever. We need less Zooms and more progress.  

At Element we believe in the power of facilitation. Coming from consultancy backgrounds, we’ve seen everything on the spectrum from slam dunk impact sessions to vacuous cringe fests. We’ve designed and facilitated more virtual sessions with more senior leaders than we can possibly count and have tried to condense our learnings into both training and facilitation as a service, for those conversations that need it most.

If the above had you nodding in agreement and you think our facilitation expertise or training could help your conversations, get in touch at hello@weareelement.com.