Leading Through Influence the Clever PM Way — Part 2: Effective Facilitation

Leading Through Influence the Clever PM Way — Part 2: Effective Facilitation

In part one of this series, we discussed the concept of “social capital” and how important it is to build, manage, and spend it in the process of leading through influence.  In this installment, we’re going to extend the scope of the discussion to a highly effective way of building your social capital in an organization, as well as to build the trust and respect of your peers and senior management team.

Facilitation is the process by which an effective product manager brings people together and drives them toward a common goal, and in doing so establishes themselves as a hub around which the spokes of the organization turn.  When performed effectively, good facilitation is almost imperceptible to those involved in a meeting – people enter, engage, and leave with an understanding of what’s to be done next.  When done poorly, or not at all, the company and management devolve into a morass of pointless, lengthy meetings that go off on wild tangents and never deliver any meaningful progress.

Which sounds more familiar to you?

Product Manager, Know Thyself

Before you even consider starting to engage in facilitation, you’re going to need to take a step back and critically assess your own personality and work style, so that you can identify when you may be too assertive during a meeting you’re facilitating or when you may be too meek during such a meeting.  Effective facilitation requires poking and prodding to ensure that people are engaged and on-task, but also ensuring that the participants feel like they are making a difference in the discussion and in the outcome.  And this means understanding and adapting your own leadership style so that you can facilitate.

Think about what you do when you’re in a meeting – do you tend to take the floor, state your opinions boldly, and let other people challenge you?  Or do you sit in the back corner, typing away on your laptop and wishing that the pain that is sitting there listening to people blather will end soon?  Chances are that you’re somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but where you want to be when you’re actually facilitating is dead center in the spectrum.


So, knowing how you normally engage during meetings is important, because you’re going to need to pull yourself to the middle of the spectrum in order to be a successful facilitator.

“The Separation is in the Preparation”

Russell Wilson is absolutely right – how you prepare for a situation sets the tone and tenor for the outcome of that situation.  And in meetings, there’s no truer statement than that.  Most meetings fail because nobody prepares for them, or because nobody really cares (or often even knows) what the outcome of the meeting is supposed to be.  You, as a Product Manager, can help solve that problem, by facilitating before the meeting even starts.

First, make sure that everyone knows what the meeting is actually about, what is intended to be discussed, and what the goal of the meeting is.  Have an agenda that people can look at and briefly scan to understand why the meeting is happening.  Too many meetings in this day and age fail because they have no stated, understood goal – it’s just a bunch of people in the room talking about something because someone else wanted to feel heard.  Take the initiative, set an agenda, and communicate clearly what the intentions are before the meeting even starts.

Communicate clearly what the intentions are before the meeting even starts.

Next, make sure that you have side conversations with the participants before the meeting even begins.  This will allow you to talk about the meeting and the goals, and to assess their willingness to engage, and more importantly their perceived agendas or biases that may come up during the meeting.  It also gives you an opportunity to identify or propose a proxy for the person, if they seem disengaged, but you believe that the meeting is important for their team.  If it’s a meeting that you’re calling to drive to a decision that you already have in mind, then make sure that you discuss this individually with all the key stakeholders before the meeting.  This allows you to drive the meeting toward a clear direction, without being too surprised by the attendees.  There’s a classic truism spoken by lawyers – “Never ask a question that you don’t know the answer to.”  Similarly, in the business world, never hold a meeting that you don’t have a good idea what the outcome will be.

Finally, figure out if there’s some pre-work that needs to be done ahead of the meeting – collecting data, performing analysis, putting together some kind of light presentation or handout that people will need to refer to.  Then, assign that work out explicitly, so that others are vested in the meeting itself — putting on your project management hat to ensure that the work is actually getting done and that the required information will be ready for the meeting itself.

Sink or Swim – The Day of the Meeting

So, you know your style and you’ve made all of the necessary preparations for the meeting.  Your participants know what’s going to be discussed, and have done all their homework (or you’ve done it for them).  Now comes the most crucial part of all – laying the ground rules, and enforcing them.

As a facilitator, it’s your responsibility to establish, communicate, and enforce the rules of the meeting.  Sometimes, these rules can be established before the meeting begins, but for a lot of more critical meetings, it’s a good idea to take 5 minutes to discuss the ground rules, so that everyone’s clear and there’s no dissent.

If people don’t like the ground rules, they’re free to leave the meeting and sacrifice their seat at the table, and their say in the decision, along with their right to criticize later.

Depending on the importance of the meeting, and the goal of the meeting (brainstorming versus confirming versus discussing), any number of these ground rules are appropriate:

  • No computers, phones, or tablets unless absolutely necessary to further the discussion at hand.
  • No name-calling or blaming permitted.
  • Tangents are to be permitted only if the speaker can connect them to the topic at hand.
  • If you leave the room outside of a normal break, you lose your seat at the table.
  • Everyone in the room is an equal in contribution, consideration, and discussion.

I like to put these rules up on a whiteboard or a large presentation Post-It pad page, so that if I need to refer to one or more of them, all I need to do is point, and say, “Hey, we all agreed to these rules, I’m just enforcing them.”

Once the ground rules are set, your job as a facilitator changes, from that of an instigator to one of a referee.  Make sure people understand the agenda, ensure that you’re sticking to it, in both time, and topics, and (most importantly) make sure that everyone is contributing to the discussion — and that no one person is monopolizing the group’s time.  Redirection is key here — telling  your CEO to “shut up and let someone else talk,” is probably a career-limiting move, but saying, “Steve, you’ve had a lot to say on this…Joe, what do you think about what we’ve discussed so far?” can have a huge impact on the meeting as well as the outcome.

Take notes for the team as necessary, ask pointed questions about what’s being discussed and what ideas are being raised, and push the team toward a decision as time starts to draw closer and closer to the end.

Most importantly, run the meeting.  Keep things on task and on target.  Control tangents by pointing people back to the goals of the meeting.  Create a list of “other topics” that can be discussed later or through other means.  Your primary job as the facilitator is to keep the meeting moving toward the end goal.  Any discussion, comment, or distraction that doesn’t move you forward moves you backward — and time is too precious to waste in a moonwalk.

Basking in the Afterglow — Your Job’s Not Done

All right!  You made all the proper preparations, and guided the team toward a decision or a set of agreed-upon priorities, or perhaps even a specific plan of action with dates and deliverables.  I only wish that I could tell you that’s sufficient, and you can now go back to your day job of identifying, validating, and solving valuable problems.

But you can’t.

Your job as a facilitator never ends when the meeting does — in fact, your actions after the meeting are often just as important as before and during.  You need to ensure that the commitments that people make are honored, and that the delivery of those commitments is as transparent as possible to all of those who attended the meeting, as well as some of the people who may not have attended.

Your job as a facilitator never ends when the meeting does.

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is.  And that’s why most meetings — even extremely important strategy and roadmap meetings — wind up disconnected and without any real resolution or drive behind them.  Most people simply aren’t willing to put in the effort to ensure that the meeting (1) has clear goals; (2) goes smoothly; and (3) results in actionable decisions that are (4) followed up on.  Understanding how to properly facilitate meetings makes you a universally-useful resource, and establishes your credibility as a “neutral” party who can drive even the most unstructured teams to a decision and to action.  Doing so repeatedly and predictably is a key component in building the trust and respect of other teams, and in ensuring that your social capital account remains firmly in the black.

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