Calibrate Content and Process to Achieve Outcomes
One of the core principles for effective facilitation
Approximate reading time: five minutes
Some meetings convene to generate and discuss ideas. Some focus on evaluating ideas and making decisions. Many meetings are a bit of both. Some workshops are designed to raise awareness and change mindsets. Some focus on helping participants learn new skills or behaviors. Many workshops are a bit of both.
Achieving any meeting or workshop outcomes requires an initial session design and real-time facilitation that appropriately calibrates both what the group discusses, decides, or learns (content) and how they do so (process).
The right content rushed through too quick a process can leave participants not truly owning any commitments made or retaining any insights learned. A decision-making meeting that honors and elicits significant individual contributions, but produces no decisions or actions, also would be unsatisfactory.
Well duh, right? Stick with me. Just because this core principle is simple or obvious doesn’t mean it lacks significant power to accelerate or impede your facilitation success … or that it is consistently and effectively applied to its full potential.
Calibration and recalibration
When designing a meeting or workshop agenda and content flow, facilitators determine an initial mix of agenda items or content segments and discussion formats that will work for (1) the outcomes specified, (2) the individuals who will be involved, and (3) the environment (session length, room set or online platform, placement in the day or conference schedule, etc.). Answering the three questions from my three-step Making It Easier framework helps you do so.
But we also must identify alternatives for each segment of the meeting or workshop, create the collateral materials for them (slides, handouts, et al), and prepare to seamlessly introduce them when the need to do so becomes evident.
During the initial segment in your workshop it becomes apparent that many participants lack foundational knowledge upon which the rest of your session builds. You shift gears and do a quick quiz about some of these fundamentals, drawing out information about the correct answers from more knowledgeable participants and adding your own contributions as needed.
A segment designed for a large group discussion produces silence and blank stares. You opt to break the content into multiple questions and assign each to a small group for discussion. When participants reconvene, each group shares briefly highlights their discussion and you facilitate open Q&A and large group discussion.
Implications of recalibration
Calling an audible and modifying your initial choices is a hallmark of effective facilitation. But making such a decision has a ripple effect for the rest of your meeting or workshop design and facilitation. Pausing to cover some basic knowledge or shifting to small group discussions and reporting both use up time and engage participants’ attention and energy differently than how your initial design envisioned. Subsequent segments of your session likely also need recalibrating in real-time.
You may have planned to divide into small groups for discussions after the segment you originally envisioned for large group discussion. Doing so now would be redundant since you used that format to address the lackluster response to your original design. You also likely need to make up some time. Anticipating and being prepared with options that address both considerations it essential.
(Re)Calibrating for participant expectations
Individuals often enter meetings or workshops with their own expectations for what should occur. It's useful to clarify these expectations in advance, as well as share the agenda/design you've created and how it will help produce the outcomes for which you are facilitating. Explicitly distinguishing discussion vs. decision-making agenda segments can help shape participant expectations, as well as inform the contributions sought from them in the meeting.
The same is true for workshops and other learning experiences as session marketing copy rarely tells the full story about a session. I almost always provide a session preview PDF exploring the content and formats in greater detail, as well as some of the questions people will be asked to discuss during the session. Here is how I recently calibrated attendee expectations for the three-hour facilitation fundamentals workshop I was leading for them.
Just as you have to calibrate your content and process macro choices in real-time, so must you manage individuals' micro expectations on a recurring basis. It's not unusual that when some individuals feel a discussion is '“beating a dead horse,” others remain fully engaged. Remember, as facilitator you serve the entire group, not any one segment of it. Whenever possible, simply help the group manage the different process and content expectations that are appearing: “It seems some people are ready to move on to another topic. How do others feel?”
Like standing on a balance board, achieving complete steadiness and security while facilitating is unlikely, so you have to maintain your own internal sense of gravity to keep from falling down on the job. Real-time calibration is the hallmark of a thoughtful facilitator, and it critical to develop your competence and confidence to do so.
The more options you prepare for in advance, the easier it is to make real-time adjustments as needed.
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