22 for 2022: A Manifesto of Sorts
22 Tips, Ideas, and Principles for Better Meeting and Workshop Design and Facilitation
3365 words. Approximate reading time: 11 minutes if you don’t stop. More like 20-30 if you savor and reflect as you go.
Creation time? Seven hours and ten minutes to write, edit, and design graphics. One large pot of SPORTea®, one grande Americano, and too many almonds to count consumed.
About this post
What are simple ways to improve meeting and workshop design and facilitation?
For 2022 (and beyond) here are 22 tips, principles, or ideas to consider. They are not in any particular order, so do not infer importance based on placement.
I call this a manifesto or sorts, but perhaps it is a more of a minifesto. While I elaborate briefly on each of the 22 offerings, I could have gone on for much longer. No doubt a few of the items may receive full posts in the year ahead. As always, I’ll respond to any questions or reactions you post in the comments or email directly to me.
Also, here is a PDF that contains the list of 22 tips, ideas, and principles without any explanation or commentary.
How the list came about
A “speed writing” exercise with a few colleagues was the impetus for this list. With a five-minute time limit, we each rapidly noted 22 or more responses. The list includes thinking I’ve long harbored and acted on, as well as some new or more recent ideas.
Similar to speed drawing or speed painting activities, speed writing uses a tight time constraint for creative output. This forces participants to turn off their inner censor if they hope to generate any reasonable volume of ideas.
If you have never used such an exercise, I highly recommend trying it. For any brainstorming activity, I find setting a numerical goal for the idea generation usually produces better results than leaving it open–ended: “Let’s generate 50 possibilities in 10 minutes.”
Need a creative break? Here is a fun online speed drawing version to do solo.
The Twenty-Two for 2022
1. Create meeting agendas that accelerate meaningful discussions and decisions.
The agenda is the one document that may be both read in advance and referenced throughout a gathering. Yet meeting agendas generally are just a high-level list of topics to be discussed, the bare minimum of usefulness.
Make meetings more productive by designing more purposeful agendas. For each agenda item consider including information such as:
The intended outcome (decision idea generation, et al)
Approximate time allotted (and perhaps format)
Executive summary of key points for consideration
A few questions to stimulate advance thinking
Links to relevant background information
Also make it more visually appealing. Think less utilitarian (i.e., invoice) and more attention-grabbing (i.e., magazine article). Play with varying font size and colors, adding simple elements like reversed text in colored boxes, rules or line dividers, and even photos or graphic elements.
2. Pre-survey or assess in advance as much as possible to help customize any workshops or other learning experiences.
The more relevant the content, the more likely people will pay attention and engage with it. Assessing needs and interests in advance helps us make better content choices.
We have little excuse for not trying given how easy it is to create free surveys online or gather ideas via email. If that’s not doable, simple polling (apps such as PollAnywhere, webinar platform tools, or show of hands) used at the onset of an event gathers at least a bit of input.
3. Develop and use shared norms or agreements to shape participation.
Lacking common ground rules or norms, meeting or workshop participants enact whatever is most familiar or comfortable to them. Critical one-time events involving participants who don’t know each other well and ongoing teams or groups (staff, board, committee, et al) benefit in particular from a shared understand of how they wish to be—and do—with each other.
4. Determine in advance the decision-making rules or criteria to use for (at least) major decisions.
Imagine a search committee trying to assess the resumes and interviews of finalists for a job without first agreeing on the criteria that everyone should use for evaluation. It would be confusing or chaotic. Yet that is exactly how many decisions in meetings are approached.
Similar in spirit to how shared norms guide discussions, decision-making rules make the criteria for decisions explicit and universal among all participants in a group. Instead of individuals applying their own criteria, everyone in a group individually considers and rates options using the same decision-making rules and criteria.
5. Commit to using an appropriate amount of time to build community and connections, particularly with ongoing groups.
As Dr. Daniel Kim’s framework illustrates, building trust and understanding among participants is key to making discussions and better decisions more likely. Icebreakers, warm-ups, or primers are activities that help do so, but too many facilitators use them frivolously or without clear purpose, often causing participants to view them negatively or respond halfheartedly.
Here is a core question to guide your thoughtful selection of an activity: Given the work to be done, the people doing it, and the time available, what ice needs to be broken and what activities might break that ice in the available time?
And remember, even a simple question thoughtfully explored can be a catalyst for meaningful conversation. Below are 125 I’ve used over the years. And Daniel Pink’s periodic newsletter shared this AI-generated list with 365 offerings. Always select a question aligned with your session’s objectives and one that honors the nature of the existing relationships among participants.
6. Rotate facilitation responsibilities.
More people who are more competent and more confident of doing more things is a good outcome! Yet, too many individuals don’t get to develop and practice facilitation skills until they are in a leadership position that requires successfully executing them. In addition, designated facilitators often are unable to be neutral for a particular conversation.
Many ongoing teams, meetings, or working groups could easily rotate the facilitator role beyond the designated chair or manager, but instead relegate it to the sole domain of that individual. And if not an entire meeting, at least consider engaging different people as facilitators for icebreakers, small group discussions, or specific activities or agenda items.
7. More frequently use purpose and outcomes to determine length and format.
Too many meetings, workshops, or conferences are search and replace gatherings. Conveners take the agenda of a comparable past event and drop in new agenda items, session titles, et al. A better approach is to examine the purpose and outcomes for any event and its components and to then consider what time and convening formats are most conducive to achieving them.
Uniformity and consistency are useful values, but they may not be the most important ones for your design and facilitation efforts. After all, not every staff meeting or webinar needs to be an hour long.
8. Better leverage synchronous and asynchronous segments for both in-person and virtual gatherings.
As virtual or hybrid gatherings have increased, more people have become comfortable with a mix of online and offline work to accomplish stated objectives, as well as synchronous and asynchronous activity.
Moving forward, facilitators should focus on the power of hybrid session design for almost any event. Offline and asynchronous posting and discussion of ideas might precede and inform in-person or online synchronous conversations might be accelerated by. A virtual synchronous discussion might lead to offline asynchronous activity.
It comes down to thinking about how to leverage each medium and moment to enhance participants’ engagement and contributions.
9. Deliver or create value faster, particularly in any learned experience or virtual meetings.
The sooner, the better. That’s my mantra for how quickly I want meeting or workshop participants to determine a session will be a good use of their time and energy. This also applies to any advance communications or pre-work.
Many gatherings at their onset reduce participants to passive spectators of a parade of talking heads welcoming them, doing long introductions, and explaining logistics not critical to getting started. Stop. Doing. This. Now.
Challenge yourself to inclusively engage both introverted and extroverted participants in some meaningful activity before and/or within the first five minutes of the session. I might reduce that time even further for a virtual convening.
10. Extend autonomy and more freedom of choice to participants.
Having everyone do the same thing at the same time and in the same way may be easier for a facilitator to manage, but it may not get the best contributions from the most participants.
I continue to experiment with giving workshop participants options for how they want to explore and apply content I’ve introduced, most frequently in half-day or full-day sessions. Instead of having all participants engage in a format I’ve determined, I might let them divide among the following options for a set amount of time:
Individually reading or watching additional content followed by discussion with those who did the same.
Convening in a small group to read and discuss a case study.
Participating with others in a hands-on activity and debrief.
Dividing into triads and doing a role rehearsal with one person in each group observing and offering feedback.
As facilitators we need to ensure time is used to advance a session’s outcomes. That doesn’t necessarily equate to controlling how individuals use a time block even if it makes the logistics a bit messier.
11. Prepare more and present less in workshops and other learning experiences.
No amount of pre-surveying can guarantee how participants will engage with your content during a session. Even after 30 years of presenting and facilitating, I’m routinely surprised at how one simple question I posed launches a vigorous conversation that people want to continue long past the time I’ve allotted for it.
When designing learning experiences, I usually ask myself:
What expertise, perspective, and content am I best or uniquely positioned to contribute?
What expertise, perspective, and content do both the participants and me have to contribute?
What expertise, perspective, and content are participants best or uniquely positioned to contribute?
Fleshing out this Venn diagram allows me to focus any presentation segments to what I identify in #1, design activities and use formats that help surface the content in #3, and contribute my #2 takes as appropriate during a session’s discussions.
Do prepare to have to talk for the entire length of your session, but then let go of any need to do so as people take the steering wheel and become co-creators of the conversations that matter most to them.
12. Evaluate and assess results routinely.
If you engage with a customer service rep online, you very likely will receive at least a one-question satisfaction survey within minutes of having done so. It would be nice if more meetings assessed effectiveness so routinely.
My three go-to questions for rapid post-meeting evaluations via email or quick online surveys are:
1A Likert-scale question: “How successful was this meeting in achieving its stated objectives?” Its open-ended follow-up is: “What most determined the rating you selected?”
A multiple-choice question assessing the meeting’s length in relation to the outcomes/format: way too short, somewhat too short, just right, somewhat too long, way too long.
An open-ended question: “What one thing would have made this meeting even more effective or productive?”
13. Document assumptions, timeframes, and metrics/indicators for results. Revisit and revise choices as new information and/or results warrant.
This is critical for strategic planning processes, but I think it is an untapped area of potential for any major decisions that are made.
Such documentation provides transparency and context for the why of a decision … what led people in the meeting to determine this was the correct decision to make. That is helpful background for anyone not in the decision-making process who may later wonder about why certain choices were made.
The information documented also helps appropriate parties revisit and assess the accuracy of the assumptions, the effectiveness of the decisions, and the results so far.
14. Increase time spent examining workshop content implications (so what?) and applications (now what?)
Content is abundant, Examination and application of it is often more scarce. Effective learning experiences go beyond raising awareness of information.
Meaningful change tends to result more often when workshop participants dig deeper into content and identify what it might mean for their context(s) and what actions they may wish to take as a result.
I often provide workshop participants with a notetaking worksheet that has three columns: what (the idea), so what (the implications), now what (the applications/actions). People can use it throughout the session. I also frequently allocate time at the end for them to do so and to discuss their takeaways with others.
15. Seek, include, and amplify diverse sources, perspectives, and voices.
Too often, I find myself in a workshop where almost every source quoted is a white male. I’ve been guilty of doing the same. While I value the thinking of authors like Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant, I would be negligent if I did not look to others more representative of the diverse learners in the sessions I present.
How diverse are the perspectives and voices in the content sources you tend to draw on for your workshop? How inclusive are the examples and quotes you share to buttress a sessions themes or ideas?
I deeply believe we must actively diversify the content we consume and the communities with which we engage in order to design the most valuable learning experiences. This belief anchors my TEDxIndianapolis talk (10-minute video), as well as a longer keynote (25-minutes) for ACPA-College Student Educators International.
16. Select food that will fuel participants’ attention, energy, and community.
If you’re doing a meeting or workshop that includes breaks or meals, food becomes an important tool to help enhance both learning and community.
What gets served can help fuel and sustain participants’ energy, attention, and engagement. I particularly think about portion size; reducing heavy carbs or excessive sugar; and having quality proteins available at every break of meal, including for vegetarians.
How food is served can help fuel networking, community, and informal interactions. A few examples:
Family-style service at a luncheon engages people directly with each other. Plated service does not.
Buffets open on both sides let you talk to people adjacent to you in your line, as well as across from you in the other line.
Having separate beverage or dessert stations again increases the possibility you’ll connect with people beyond those at your table.
Offering different size and styles of tables (highboys, four-tops, 60” rounds, a row of communal tables, counter-style tables facing a window, et al) lets people pick the seating that mirrors the interaction they may value, honoring both introverts and extroverts.
17. Reduce friction that inhibits participants being fully present and fully contributing.
Facilitation is about making it easier for better discussions, decisions, and results to occur. To inform your choices for any meetings or workshops you’re designing and/or facilitating, consider what might get in the way of participants being full present and fully contributing. Better yet? Ask them and then design accordingly.
18. Build your capacity and confidence to “call an audible.”
I wrote a lengthy post and case study on this topic already, so I won’t repeat myself here.
Effective facilitation responds to what is happening in real-time during a meeting or workshop. That often means deviating from the outline or agenda. Building one’s capacity to do so confidently and calmly should be part of every facilitator’s goals.
19. Appropriately acknowledge and explore the emotional scaffolding of many issues and conversations.
To some conversations Twitter now adds the following advice at the top: “Heads Up. Conversations like this can be intense. Don’t forget the human behind the screen.” Effective facilitation often needs to do the same.
Focusing only on the cognitive aspects of a conversation ignores the very real impact that people’s emotions have on what they share, the positions they advance, and the decisions they will support. It’s not by accident that one of the hats in Edward de Bono’s Six-Hat Thinking Method is the red hat, the hat representing critical thinking around emotional responses.
Effective meeting design and facilitation helps create the equitable, inclusive, and safe climate for people to speak their truths freely. While important to do on the front end of any gathering, we often have to recreate that climate as the conditions for conversation change during a meeting.
20. Model and invite empathy, curiosity, and inquiry.
People have opinions, belief systems, and mental models. Some are deeply engrained. In a discussion, it is not unusual for individuals to focus most on advocating their existing beliefs or positions.
When we model and invite empathy, curiosity, and inquiry, we help meeting or workshop participants thoughtfully consider others’ perspectives, beliefs or values. This promotes more robust discussions and more informed and inclusive decisions.
Here are a few questions I often use to help make this easier:
What assumptions are present in the conversation right now? What are some other possible assumptions that are worth exploring?
I wonder if anyone has a different take or perspective to share, one we have yet to consider.
What’s led you to the decision or action that you’re advocating? Could you “show us your work” on how you got to your position?
At some point this spring, I’ll make available a Train-the-Trainer kit for one of the activities I’ve found most effective in helping people appreciate and understand how others might see the world differently than they do.
21. Begin and end better.
“December staggered in like a weary mud-encrusted vagabond who had been on her way to someplace else but whose legs had buckled and now she was here.” “
Things They Lost, by Okwiri Oduor
This opening line immediately commanded my attention and made me hungry to read more. How often do your meetings or workshops open in a comparable fashion?
A current personal pet peeve of mine is the dead visual and audio silence before an online workshop or meeting begins: “The host has not yet started the meeting.”
For me, these “waiting spaces” beg for some strategically chosen background music (that changes to announce the start of a session), as well as a rotating slide deck of images and information that complements the event that will follow.
Once you have the core of a meeting or workshop well-designed, direct appropriate time and attention to crafting a better beginning and a better ending, ones that effectively transition people into (and out of) the session. Be sure to include any advance and follow-up communications to reinforce the event’s outcomes.
Great books, plays, songs, or films quickly pique your interest and draw in your attention at their beginning and providing a satisfying conclusion as they finish. Meetings or workshops should do the same.
22. Include more opportunities for serendipity and informal connections and conversations.
The longer the gathering, the more important I think this becomes. I tend to examine every segment in a meeting agenda or workshop outline to identify design choices that will make it easier to increase informal connections and conversations.
Sometimes the simplest things can make a difference:
adding a personal fact on a nametag makes it easier to strike up conversations with a stranger.
having quotes at each place setting at a meal provides something for people to share.
inviting people to change tables halfway through a full-day workshop doubles the number of people they formally encounter.
posting a compelling question or two on newsprint and providing markers or Post-Its enables people to share thoughts and ideas with others.
providing cards, a puzzle, or other games gives people something fun to do with each other during breaks.
a resource display provides additional content to participants, but also encourages browsing and conversation.
Every design or facilitation choice we make is an opportunity to ensure better discussions, decisions, or results. Time and resources will always constrain our work in this regard, but we should not let them impede our commitment to being as intentional as we can with every decision we make. Hopefully these 22 tips, ideas, and principles will make it easier for you to do so.
Additional learning opportunities
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