Facilitator’s Guide/Tips for Successful Meetings

November 8, 2010

This is a part of a series that was cre­at­ed to help you get the prac­tice of ret­ro­spec­tives built into your com­pany. This series will walk through the approach, nec­es­sary roles, in addi­tion to guides for each role to help your com­pany get started quickly.

As a facilitator, you have a very challenging job.

Scheduling/arranging the meetings and sending out the agendas is the easy part. The hard part is getting the team members to:

  • Fully engage in the process
  • Be disciplined in their approach
  • Be open and honest in order to uncover issues and opportunities for improvement
  • Take their time during the process

People worry about how they are going to look or what the consequences will be if the really speak their minds. This is especially true with newer teams.

The first part of this guide contains practical guidance on running the meeting. The second part contains tips for keeping your team members focused and for encouraging them to get the most out of the process.

Part 1: Meeting Management

Prior to Meetings

Keep a calendar of upcoming meetings – meet with team leaders to determine the appropriate time to schedule each meeting; schedule meetings for as soon after an event ends as possible, while the experience is still fresh.

Meetings generally take from 1 to 3 hours, depending on the work to be reflected upon. While developing your agenda, schedule:

  • 25% of the time to discussing what went well and why
  • 25% of the time to discussing what did not go well and why
  • 50% of the time to developing and prioritizing a list of specific, actionable improvement items

Send out an agenda to all team members one week prior to the meeting. Include ground rules:

  • The meeting is about the process, not people
  • There will be no blaming or finger-pointing
  • We will be open and honest in order to truly improve the process the next time around
  • Everyone will participate
  • We will stay on topic
  • We will work together to prioritize actionable improvement items

Ask team members to come prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What worked and why
  • What did not work and why
  • What can we do differently the next time around to improve the process?

Ask team members to contact you in advance with any questions, comments, or concerns

Prepare your materials for the meeting (white board and markers, flip chart, index cards, sticky notes, etc.).

During the Meeting

There are various ways to run retrospective/after action review meetings – here are two suggestions:

Method 1:> Cards

Newer teams, or teams where members have trouble being open and honest, may be more comfortable writing their input on 3×5 cards. If using this approach:

  • Give members a set amount of time to write out what went well and why; ask them to use one 3×5 card for each item
  • Give members a set amount of time to write out what did not go well and why; again, ask them to use one 3×5 card for each item
  • Read all the cards to the group
  • Ask members to identify themes and record them on a flip chart of other visible surface
  • Ask members to vote on important themes, prioritize them for action, and identify three actionable improvement items
  • Record other ideas for improvement to put in a backlog for future discussion

Method 2: Brainstorming

Brainstorming meetings can be a better alternative for teams whose members have built trust with each other and who are comfortable with each other. If using this approach:

  • Spend a set amount of time discussing what went well and why; record responses under a heading entitled “pluses” on a visible writing surface.
  • Spend a set amount of time discussing what did not go well and why; record responses under a heading entitled “deltas.”
  • As the discussion proceeds, ask team members to offer ideas to be recorded under “action items”
  • Ask members to identify three specific, actionable improvement items.

At the end of the meeting, have team members thank or apologize to one another for specific things that took place during the iteration. For example:

  • “Joe, thanks for getting Laura on the phone for me last Wednesday – I couldn’t have stayed on track without her input.”
  • “Jeff, I’m sorry I was so distant when we worked on the revisions last Friday – what a week!”

Post Meeting

  • Summarize the meeting. See the After Action Review sample provided with this kit for ideas on how to capture the actionable improvement items.
  • Distribute the meeting summary to all team members.
  • Consider setting up a central folder to store all meeting notes, lessons learned, and ideas for ways to improve in the future.
  • Follow up to ensure improvement suggestions are being implemented. If not, work with team leader to identify any issues. If senior management support is necessary, seek out assistance from department head.

Part 2: Tips for Successful Meetings

Interpersonal Issues

Retrospective/after action reviews are difficult for team members. People bring all kinds of interpersonal issues to the process. Maybe they have trouble speaking their mind. Or maybe they are afraid that if they speak their mind someone will take issue with them. If you appreciate these difficulties in advance, there are several things you can do to help the team members during the process.

  • Send out agenda and remind team members of the ground rules in advance. This importance of doing so cannot be overemphasized. Having boundaries in place to protect people from personal attacks is crucial to the process.
  • Your agenda should make clear that you expect everyone to contribute. If there is someone in the meeting who can’t or won’t offer up an idea, ask them why. If they say “all went well, nothing went wrong,” ask them “why” they think that was the case – asking “why” questions is a proven technique for uncovering information.
  • Observe body language. If you notice someone with their arms crossed, or deep in thought, or with a skeptical smirk on his or her face, a smile, a puzzled look, etc., ask the person, “John, what are you thinking?”
  • If anyone starts to talk about a specific person’s performance, redirect the conversation and remind them that we are talking about the process, not specific individuals.
  • If anyone goes off topic or starts rambling, thank them for their insight but remind them that we are sticking to a very specific schedule for discussion today.

Getting solid recommendations for improvements

In the course of facilitating, you will probably run into one or more of the following situations:

Issue 1: The actionable recommendations are too vague.
Solution: Ask the team members to get very specific:

  • Vague: “We need to meet more often next time around.”
  • Specific: “Next time, let’s meet every Friday and Tuesday morning from 9 to 10 am.”

Issue 2: There are more than three ideas for ways to improve.
Solution: Have team members prioritize the top three to focus on. If other ideas are simple and easy to implement, by all means have the members implement them. If the other ideas will require more time and effort to implement, record them and put them in a backlog to revisit in future meetings.

Issue 3: Even after continued “why” probing on your part, the team members are still stuck and can’t seem to identify any ways to improve next time around.
Solution: Ask the members to step backward and think very simply. Results generated might include action items such as:

  • Next time, we will start the day saying “good morning” to each other
  • Next time, we will laugh more often to relieve stress
  • Next time, at the end of each day, each of us will write down 1) one good thing that happened that day and why, and 2) one thing that we wished would have gone differently that day and why; we will bring these notes to our next retrospective/after action review meeting to help us find actionable improvement items next time around.

Planning for the future

The benefits derived from retrospectives are cumulative in nature. Each meeting will result in actionable improvements that will become building blocks for more improvements in the future.

Over time, trust builds not only among team members, but also between the team members and the facilitators. Bring out the best in your teams by staying close to the process, by caring about the team members as people, and by taking their issues and concerns up the ladder in the company when needed.

Founder & Partner

As the founder of OpenView, Scott focuses on distinctive business models and products that uniquely address a meaningful market pain point. This includes a broad interest in application and infrastructure companies, and businesses that are addressing the next generation of technology, including SaaS, cloud computing, mobile platforms, storage, networking, IT tools, and development tools.