How to handle unprepared participants

Approximate reading time: six minutes; 1449 words

Underprepared or unprepared participants are not solely the facilitator’s challenge. Effective facilitation builds peer-peer accountability between and among group members instead of just to you as the facilitator.

Failure to do so can create an environment where a group’s success is overly dependent on a facilitator’s interventions rather than a strong interdependence among its members.  Achieving the latter often requires facilitators to shift and refresh their thinking about their role in relationship to a group.

Common facilitator frame:

How do I deal with people who show up un(der)prepared for a meeting?

Refreshed facilitator frame:

How do I help a group when some participants show up un(der)prepared for a meeting?

What makes it easier for group members to prepare?

To initiate discussions about preparation and accountability, I often ask group members to, in the spirit of the appreciative inquiry methodology, think of a time when they were part of a group whose members consistently were fully prepared and ready to contribute at meetings.  I then invite them to share what factors made that possible. Common responses include:

  • Individuals believed in the group’s purpose and wanted to help everyone produce the best results.

  • The amount of time to do the pre-work and to prepare was clearly specified and reasonable.

  • Group members appropriately prioritized preparation into their individual workflows.

  • The pre-work was clearly relevant and necessary.

  • People didn’t assume they could just show up and wing it.

  • The pre-work materials were received far enough in advance and were user-friendly.

  • Preparation was not overly complicated or cumbersome.

  • Previous meetings referenced or applied assigned prep work so people has experienced its value.

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The systems thinking iceberg model nicely captures how some responses reflect individual participants’ mental models about the group and the prep work.  Others relate to the underlying structures or processes involved with pre-work and preparation.  Effective meeting design and facilitation must address both mindsets and methods to avoid unprepared participants.

Seven tips for ensuring participants are prepared

Building on the lessons learned about what enhances participant preparation, here are some practical tips to guide your efforts:

1. Into every job description build a commitment to completing pre-work and arriving to meetings and conversations prepared to fully contribute. Describe what that looks like in action. For volunteer role, be as specific as possible about preparation time commitments to help them fulfill their responsibilities.

2. When building a meeting agenda, work with group members to identify what prep is necessary and distribution dates for any pre-work to help ensure it can be completed.

3. Create a dashboard where individuals can indicate their completion of preparatory assignments as it occurs.  This gives you (and the group) a simple progress barometer as a meeting date draws near and shows where some individual interventions may be necessary. Google Docs work great for online formats, and a flipchart matrix provides an in-office visual to post.

4. Don’t assign busy work.  Cry wolf too many times on required, but unhelpful or unused prep work, and you condition participants that they don’t need to invest the time with it.

5. Make prep work succinct and user-friendly. Incorporate prep work references into the meeting agenda with links (if possible) to the related materials. This helps reinforce the connection between the meeting outcomes and topics and the preparation that supports them. Also include predictions about the time required to review the material (similar to the approximate reading time at the start of this essay).

6. In the case of voluminous prep work, consider if some elements can be divided and assigned to subsets of participants who then provide an executive summary to other group members. If not everyone has to do a deep dive into all of the material, you often increase the odds of better overall preparation.

7. My top tip is to not wait to help a group determine how it wants to deal with the underprepared participants until the situation actually presents itself. Prior to a group convening (perhaps when creating shared agreements/norms), facilitate some discussion about how the group will respond if individuals come un(der)prepared, both in terms of addressing unprepared participants, as well as how the group will (or will not) proceed with the meeting.

Reactive realities: managing the moment

Regardless of proactive measures taken with a group regarding pre-work, preparation, and peer-peer accountability, every facilitator periodically is caught in a reactive mode when a meeting is convened and it is apparent that not everyone is fully prepared to contribute as planned and desired.

If you’ve enacted my top tip just mentioned (#7), you already have guidance from the group on how to manage this.  In determining what to do, start there.

But even with that guidance (and particularly if it isn’t available), you likely need to facilitate discussion of at least two questions:

1. What can we accomplish today?

Don’t punish the entire group if only a few individuals are inadequately prepared. Given that the majority did prepare as asked, focus most on helping the group successfully do the work that it can.

What can be accomplished usually depends on several variables: the meeting’s agenda, how critical the prep work is to completing the agenda items and planned outcomes, the time available for the meeting, and how widespread the inadequate preparation is among group members.

If a small number of participants are un(der)prepared, a meeting often can continue as planned.  In other cases, everyone can “get up to speed” sufficiently by allowing 5-10 minutes for review of the most critical materials.  In some instances when lack of preparation was more widespread, I’ve had groups decide to revise the agenda/scope of work and proceed. Only rarely has a meeting been canceled and rescheduled.

Regardless of which reality unfolds in your gathering, allow adequate time to address the other critical question:

2.  How can this be prevented in the future?

Unless a meeting will be canceled, I tend to focus first (and most) on completing as much of the agenda as possible before spending some time on this additional question.

Before doing so ensure you have the right conversation climate to allow for an honest self-assessment among members of the group, as well as remind them of any shared agreements.  If a lack of preparation has become a more persistent pattern over time, draw on the iceberg model and explore the underlying structures and mental models that may be responsible.

Two accountability dynamics are in play:

  1. accountability for the prep work (I didn’t complete it); and

  2. relationship accountability to other group members (I let others down).

As Dr. Daniel Kim has noted, the quality of relationships in a group directly influence its quality of thinking, actions, and outcomes. Conversations with groups meeting only one or two times may rightly prioritize the work aspect. For recurring groups, however, it is particularly important it is to ensure adequate time is spent on the relationship aspect and the corresponding peer-peer accountability.

If the lack of preparation was fairly widespread, significantly impeded the group’s ability to complete the planned work/agenda, and/or caused many people to become frustrated, I’d likely open discussion of question #2 with an “around the room.”

This format (also commonly referred to as a gavel pass) provides everyone an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about preparation and accountability … individually and without interruption. More about the format:

  • If desired, provide a gavel, talking stick, or some other object to signify who has “the floor.”  If doing virtually, you can use the annotation tool or mute all other participants.

  • Only the person holding the object (floor) may speak. Do not allow others to react or interrupt.

  • When it is their turn, individuals are free to pass on the chance to speak or “ditto” what someone else said previously if they have nothing new to add.

Once everyone has had a chance to speak, facilitate an open discussion exploring the perspectives just surfaced and identifying possible preparation-related action items to apply in future meetings. Focus the conversation on learning what works, what doesn’t, and how to do better next time rather than devolving into assigning blame.

Bottom line?

Effective facilitation builds peer-peer accountability between and among group members instead of just to you as the facilitator. Reducing the likelihood participants arrive un(der)prepared for a meeting requires both proactive meeting design and effective facilitation in the moment.


© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2021. All rights reserved.

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