Meeting Facilitation: The Aspects of Becoming Successful

In business, facilitation refers to the successful running of a productive and impartial meeting, without leading or distracting the group from the main goal. Facilitators aid in meetings that involve a decision, finding a solution to a problem, and in the exchange of ideas for discussion.

Meetings are the perfect avenue to do find resolutions as they are where people come together to work on a common goal. Good and effective meetings include: a) one goal that everyone is familiar with. b) A plan to reach those goals. c) Understanding that everyone comes from different backgrounds, therefore, opinions and points of view will vary. d) A sense of responsibility and involvement with the company and one another.

One single and simple way to achieve a successful meeting does not exist. Building synergy usually comes with experience and cooperation from the group. The more people are aware of good group dynamics, the easier the job of the facilitator, and the more productive the end result.

Some of the aspects of facilitation include the following:

The role of the facilitator – Their task is likened to that of a mediator, who helps out in the process during a grievance, but not involved with what occurred before and what happens after. These are individuals who assist groups of people to effectively reach a goal and work diligently toward accomplishing that goal. They do not take sides or express their points of view, allowing the floor to discuss among themselves.

Consulting with the client – A third-party individual affiliated with another company may seek out the help of the facilitator. This usually involves business deals that include both companies to work together towards a common resolution. The facilitators will be able to understand the purpose and the best expected outcome.

Making arrangements – The meetings are to be arranged and managed by the facilitator. This involves the location to be approved by the participants and the acceptance of the invitation by those needed to be in attendance. This aspect involves researching for background information regarding why the meeting is being held in the first place.

Setting the agenda – In compliance with the previous aspect, this field also involves understanding in detail how each goal can be reached and how long it could take. With enough experience and practice, facilitators explain to the participants the issues and each possible course of action.

Understanding group norms and dynamics – Given that everyone comes from a different department, culture, and background, having enough knowledge on group dynamics can help the overall flow of the discussion and the productivity of the team. Facilitators should not make assumptions, but rather adapt to the differences. They should also be aware of the body language of each participant, and make sure everyone is comfortable.

All of these aspects make up sound and effective facilitation, with improvement noticeable in following meetings. At the conclusion of each gathering, everyone should have a sense of what to expect at the next showing. It is also critical for the facilitators to ask the group what they believe should happen next.

Provoking Productive Thinking

Business leaders agree that human capital is the most important asset in organizations. Ironically, particularly in medium-sized and large companies, it is often the most underutilized asset. Although fierce competition is driving an increasing number of workers to put in long hours, the additional hours have not translated into optimal results in organizations where the traditional approach to work has not changed.

This approach disproportionately focuses on motor skills, leaving much of an organization’s brainpower untapped. Dutifully repeating the same tasks and routines is only a fraction of the capability of the worker. As a young sculptor, Michelangelo applied for a job at a commercial studio. The owner of the studio informed him that he knew exactly how long it took to carve each piece and that his deliveries were never late.

In his book The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone dramatizes the rest of the conversation between the two men: “Michelangelo asks what happens if a sculptor thinks of ‘something new … an idea not carved before.’ The owner replies, ‘Sculpture is not an inventing art, it is reproductive.’

“Michelangelo again asks him what would happen if a sculptor wanted to ‘achieve something fresh and different.’ The owner says, ‘That is your youth speaking, my boy. A few months under my tutelage and you would lose such foolish notions.’ “

Obviously, Michelangelo never worked in this studio. At a time when customers constantly demand new and fresh ideas, and when visionary companies identify and create markets to meet needs the customers didn’t think of, many businesses still operate like that studio owner.

The solicitation of habitual productive thinking in an organization is often limited to management, which is typically 5 percent to 20 percent of the workforce. When professionals, such as accountants, lawyers, and human resource leaders, are included in the productive-thinking process, that still leaves out more than half of the workforce.

Why is productive thinking critical?
Like all human accomplishments, every business begins as a thought. The inventions, innovations, and small improvements that differentiate winners from stragglers result from thinking. Productive thinking involves actively engaging the brain in seeking ways to improve the process and product of work. It seeks better ways of performing routine tasks. It applies talent and experience in generating novel and profitable ideas. As foresighted and innovative as management might be, the thinking that’s likely to have the greatest impact on improving processes, products and services emanates from the people closest to the work. Organizations that understand this fact include frontline staff in an organized productive thinking process.

Under Jack Welch’s leadership, GE caught on to the infinite potential of a thinking organization.
Initially, company culture did not allow workers to safely and regularly share ideas. But after conducting tens of thousands of workout sessions — during which employees in groups of 10 to 100 shared their opinions in off-site meetings — acting on employee input became a way of life in the organization. GE harvested hundreds of innovative ideas from non-management employees through these sessions. Welch provides additional detail on the workout sessions in Winning, a book co-authored with his wife, Suzy.

Toyota is perhaps the best example of how continuous productive thinking facilitates enduring success. Following years of steady growth, the company has surpassed GM as the No. 1 automaker. While GM closes plants, offers buyouts to workers and recently posted a $38.7 billion net loss for 2007, Toyota has been expanding factories and building new ones around the world to meet rising demand. How could there be so much discrepancy in one industry? What makes Toyota so audacious, resilient and successful? The efficiency, durability and freshness of its automobiles are a typical response to the latter question. But high-quality products are only a manifestation of the company’s success formula. Its efficient production system is a more veritable success factor. Then again, virtually every automaker implements a form of lean production.

In Jeffrey Liker’s book (the critically acclaimed The Toyota Way), independent research and public comments by Toyota executives suggest the key to Toyota’s success lies in two principles that are rooted in the company’s culture: The company relentlessly seeks ways to improve and it engages the entire workforce in a continuous improvement process. Toyota provides leadership, structure, incentives and an environment that motivates employees to constantly think of ways to improve business processes and outcomes.

In a 2005 presentation entitled Conflict in Time: Strategy for the 21st Century, Chet Richards, a lecturer and management consultant who teaches organizations how to apply successful military strategies to winning in business, used the German word auftragstaktik — which translates to missions and contracts — to describe the empowering relationship between management and staff at Toyota. Instead of assigning tasks, work teams are given a mission. The impact of each mission on the larger organization is clearly communicated. This enables the teams to understand the big picture and to function effectively as parts of a system. Contracting allows staff to challenge or question the feasibility of a mission, thus gaining commitment from each member.

Within defined, broad parameters, each team seeks out the most efficient way to execute its mission. The “seeking out” process, as well as the continuous-improvement culture, allows productive thinking to flourish. Identifying opportunities for improvement or coming up with ideas for new products is as important as meeting delivery goals. At all levels of the organization, there is no resting on laurels, no plateaus and no satisfaction with the status quo.

As Chad Buckner, a Toyota employee, told Fast Company magazine, “We’re all incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished. But you don’t stop. You don’t stop. There’s no reason to be satisfied.”
This is the Toyota way of life. As a result, a typical Toyota plant makes thousands of changes to its operation each year. These seemingly infinitesimal changes translate into invincibility in the marketplace. Employees gain dexterity from performing the same tasks over a long period of time. At Toyota, they also gain fingerspitzengefuhl, a Zen-like quality of intuitive understanding that results from cumulative productive thinking.

This sort of prodigious insight enables workers to “think without thinking” — to borrow Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink phraseology — and maximize their workday. What’s more, it produces the foresight and momentum that can propel any organization to the top of its industry. Considering that the creative potential of the workforce is infinite and because people closest to the work are actively engaged in the innovative and constant improvement process, Toyota will continue to reinvent itself long into the future.

In their book Seeing David in the Stone, James and Joseph Swartz cited a Stanford University study of public corporations. They concluded that “corporations with the largest performance improvements developed the cultures of entrepreneurs and the discipline of soldiers.”
Toyota’s business model will yield positive results for any organization that has the courage to implement it correctly. How long the results last will depend on whether the organization has the discipline to sustain the model over the long haul.

Productive thinking requires entrepreneurial acumen. Entrepreneurship thrives in an open, empowering and inclusive environment — an environment where fingerspitzengefuhl can be achieved.

Are productive thinkers made or born?
Productive thinkers, over time, begin to consistently deliver exceptional results. At the height of their achievements, they make contributions that change the course of history. Celebrated as geniuses and high achievers, Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Sam Walton, Bill Gates and countless others were productive thinkers.

In their research, the Swartzes found that each of these individuals spent at least 10 years in preparation, developing their thoughts and perfecting their crafts. They point out that by the time Edison discovered the fluorescent electric lamp, he knew more about the gas industry and the research of other electric-energy pioneers than anyone of his day.

As Louis Pasteur, world-renowned French biochemist, rightly noted, “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” All types of workers can reap the rewards of productive thinking. While many may never achieve the fame of the greats, they will make contributions that can transform their organizations.

How do you improve productive thinking?
Learning is the fuel for productive thinking. The more relevant knowledge and information you absorb and process, the greater your chances of experiencing moments of illumination.
In addition to formal education, books, periodicals and daily business news, trade meetings and conferences are excellent ways to keep the brain sharp and stay on top of your trade. People who understand the competitive advantage of timely access to information seek and consume it voraciously.

The partnership that birthed Microsoft originated from a magazine article entitled “Breakthrough: World’s First Minicomputer.” Struck by the photo on the cover of the magazine, Paul Allen picked up a copy and shared it with Bill Gates. The following day, both men called Altair, the manufacturer of the minicomputer, to discuss the possibility of running their software on the machine, according to the Swartzes’ book. What happened next is history. According to Bryan George, a world-class executive coach quoted in HFN [Home Furnishings News] magazine, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies read, on average, four books per week. Busy professionals have others regularly scan news and periodicals for topics of interest. They can supplement reading with audio books.

Cross training or learning something new, such as an innovative way of performing tasks or a different language, will help keep the brain stimulated.

How do you become a thinking organization?
Assessing the level of your employees’ involvement in shaping your operation, products and services is a good starting point. The following questions might be helpful in this process:
* Are you utilizing only a small portion of your organization’s brainpower?
* How effective is your organization’s process in eliciting ideas for improvement and innovation from your entire workforce?
* How critical is continuous improvement to your organization? How is it operationalized?
* Are your creative and critical thinking skills rusting from lack of use?
* How often do you feed your brain to keep your productive thinking skills sharp?
Your answers to the above questions will determine the degree to which you implement any or all of the following recommendations:
* Cultivate a culture that’s not only safe for employees to share ideas, but that motivates them to do so. Organizational norms, structures, systems and processes should be designed to facilitate ongoing improvement-oriented input from all strata of the workforce.
For instance, thinking skills should be assessed during job interviews and employees should be given the freedom to innovate. Employers should provide necessary resources, encourage experimentation and define acceptable levels of mistakes and failure. Performance management and reward systems should facilitate creativity and innovation.
* Infuse your organization with a continuous-improvement mentality.
Continuous improvement must rank in the top 10 management cliches. However, its relevance as a catalyst for growth is not diminished by time or frequency of mention. A mind-set that incessantly questions the way things are with an eye to bettering them is the most relevant ingredient in engaging the intellect of your workforce.
* If your organization is unwilling to embark on large-scale transformation, practice positive disobedience.

No, this concept is not a recipe for a pink slip. It’s a term used by the Center for Creative Leadership to describe the action of subcultures that model a behavior for the larger culture. It’s behavior or action that yields superior results, even though it might differ from the mainstream.
In the 1950s, a malaria outbreak killed thousands in a small town in West Africa. Smack in the middle of the town were about a dozen families who were not affected by the disease. These families took steps such as avoiding stagnant water around the house; burning leaves, which repelled the insects; and shutting their windows at night to avoid mosquito bites.

Their neighbors sometimes mocked them for refusing to grow certain plants — plants that attracted mosquitoes. But these actions preserved their lives. To suggest that the vast majority of the workforce is underutilized might be counterintuitive to many workers and employers. Some might even find it offensive. But as Toyota demonstrates, there’s more to the line worker than performing a task by rote or making the monthly or quarterly numbers.

Employees whose minds are actively engaged in improving processes, workflows and results are unlikely to suffer from boredom or the drudgery of repetitive work. In fact, countless worker-satisfaction surveys highlight the lack of inclusion in decision-making processes as a major source of dissatisfaction. Engaging the intellect of all your workers is not only a smart business decision, it is a demonstration of respect and recognition for what they have to offer.
Published by permission of LRP publications 2008.

Productive Online Business – 5 Best Ways to Online Business

The rise of the internet has opened so many opportunities for entrepreneurs who are targeting the global market. Today, buying and selling of goods cannot get easier as long as you are connected to the World Wide Web. If you intend to go online, these 5 best ways to online business can greatly help you out:

1. Break away from stiff competition. There are certain niches that are highly saturated and penetrating them is virtually next to impossible. If you would like to sell, you need to target the untargeted. Research other niches that are not yet tapped by other online entrepreneurs and identify their needs. You can then sell products that they require to earn profits. Since these niches have few competitions, you have higher chances of making a sale.

2. Lay your business plans. After identifying your target market, you need to create a strong business plan that will lay out all your tasks in growing your business. This will serve as your ultimate guide not only in selling your products but also in achieving your short and long term goals.

3. Pick the best ecommerce software. Choose the one that offers the features that you need and meet all your business requirements. In addition, it is important that it is easy to use and it must allow customization.

4. Set up your own website. Create your space in the World Wide Web. You can use this to showcase your products and facilitate your sales transactions. To maximize its benefits and to increase your sales, you should know how to drive traffic to it. The recommended methods are SEO, link building, PPC advertising, article marketing, forum posting, and article writing.

5. Offer freebies and discounts every once in a while. Let your customers know that you value them and the business they provide you. Throw away freebies or give them price breaks to promote customer loyalty.

Meeting Facilitator – Now Performing As Director – Conductor – Coach and Choreographer

Imagine an orchestra without a conductor; the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion all reading the music on their own could result cacophony instead of symphony.  What if The Producers had no director or choreographer; those little old ladies would be knocking each other over with their walkers.  A football team without a playbook would be little more than a sandlot game.

The same holds true for a planning meeting without a facilitator. We’ve all sat through countless meetings that went nowhere. Even with an agenda and knowing essentially what you want to get out of the meeting, it often takes a skilled facilitator to get everyone participating, keeping them civil and driving the discussion to a clear result.

The facilitator is more than just a meeting guide.  Much like the orchestra conductor, a theater director/choreographer or football coach, it is their responsibility to plan, run and bring the meeting to a clear conclusion.

It is not the facilitator’s job to solve problems or to push their own agenda (no matter how well-disguised).

It is the facilitator’s job to simply allow people in the group to work through their thoughts and feelings through the process of discussion by actively listening and creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable participating.

So what should you expect from a good facilitator?  Here are the 8 qualities and skills that a good facilitator must use to extract the best ideas and thoughts from even the most reluctant participants: 

  1. Knowledgeable researcher: Before the meeting starts, the facilitator gathers as much information as possible to ensure they understand the topic enough to guide the exploration of issues, ideas and thoughts. Often the facilitator will request to interview key participants to uncover any potential issues or information that could help to keep the discussion productive.
  2. Objective, patient listener: Generally, the less connected the facilitator is to the participants, the better; making it easier to ensure that every one is heard equally.  It is the facilitator’s job to make sure that all participants feel comfortable participating, and to encourage everyone to engage in the discussion. Perhaps the greatest skill of a facilitator is an ability to patiently listen to sometimes rambling ideas or thoughts and then capturing them clearly, without losing the emotion or intent. It can be hard to not turn one person’s thought into what you think it should be rather than what they meant it to be. 
  3. Organized choreographer: The facilitator either prepares the agenda for the meeting or works with the meeting sponsor to outline areas to be covered. Then, it is the facilitator’s job to keep everyone on track and to document the discussion as it unfolds.  Using whiteboards or flip charts, the facilitator often papers the meeting room walls with the notes, charts and ideas, regularly tracking all of it back to the original agenda.
  4. Focused conductor: Any creative discussion will naturally wander. It’s on these detours that the best ideas often emerge. While the agenda may not be followed in order, the facilitator always knows the way back. They can quickly adapt and encourage a creative discussion, ensuring that everyone gets their say. Then document the ideas or issues as they guide the discussion back on topic.
  5. Devil’s advocate: In every meeting there is at least one elephant in the room; that question or issue that no one wants to mention. This is where pre-meeting interviews and topic research help a facilitator become aware of these issues so they can safely and subtly bring them forward for discussion. They can also push back on ideas with flip side thoughts that can encourage broader, more creative discussion.
  6. Coach and mediator:  Every group has different dynamics, with standout and reluctant participants. If executives are part of the group, they can sometimes inhibit open participation. The facilitator must break down barriers with humor, insights and direct questions. If confrontations or arguments do erupt, the facilitator must quickly regain control, make sure both sides are heard, and then get everyone back on track.
  7. Face and body language reader:  It takes practice and sensitivity to notice the silent signals when people become unhappy, angry, distracted or upset. A good facilitator listens for what is not said and finds ways to engage these people in a positive and supportive way.
  8. Great closer: Tying is all together at the end and making sure there are no issues hanging, nothing left unsaid, and no one feeling left out is perhaps the most critical skill of a facilitator. Recapping the topic by running quickly across the wall charts, then outlining next steps and any assignments gets everyone on the same page to move forward.

Think about bringing in a skilled facilitator to orchestrate your next critical meeting. The results can be amazing and the process can be much more fun than you imagine when you get to sit back and participate.