Kevin M. Hoffman wrote the book Meeting Design for Managers, Makers, and Everyone with a simple goal in mind: helping people have meetings that empower better work. Knowing your own style of facilitation, and the style of facilitation needed in a particular meeting, can be the difference between a successful collaboration and a failed, forced, or disconnected one. In this excerpt from Chapter 5, “Facilitation Strategy and Style”, he discusses one of three stylistic ranges to consider when planning how you approach managing a discussion towards a productive outcome. Think about your own style as you read, and for more, purchase the book here.
Facilitation is a balancing act. It requires demonstrating empathy for a group’s interests and capabilities while simultaneously keeping them away from tempting but unproductive lines of discussion. The effort and focus required to maintain that balance varies based on what kind of person you are and what kind of topic or group you’re facilitating. These three spectrums—scripted to improvisational, drawing to speaking, and space making to space filling—are designed to help you get a better sense of your own (or anyone’s) facilitation style. They will also help to assess when a style supports a meeting, or when it needs something different.
Scripted to Improvisational
Do you plan agendas so precisely that you prescribe the number of minutes per topic? Do you distribute a written discussion guide in advance? If so, then you probably facilitate more in a scripted style. Scripted facilitation is well suited for organizations where meetings tend to be frequent, aimless, and meandering. The clarity provided by a more rigid discussion guide will seem novel and be welcomed.
Scripted facilitators can come across as less flexible, or at worst, inauthentic. A script helps, but you don’t want to seem like you wouldn’t be able to succeed without it. When you are perceived as inauthentic, people will believe that you’re more invested in seeing your plan followed than a positive outcome. If you sense any of those responses to your style, it’s time to become more improvisational.
Effective improvisational facilitators can surprise people with strong questions out of the blue, and they seem to draw from a bottomless playbook of activities. Improvisational facilitation feels challenging and requires attendees to be present and focused. When it works, it helps the group synthesize in unexpected ways.
It may seem like an improvisational facilitator is unprepared, but they are like jazz musicians. Jazz musicians seemingly pull stuff out of thin air, but it’s really from tons of practice and a playbook of great ideas they’ve built over time. Good improvisational facilitators come prepared with a collection of conversational hacks that they can summon at will. Improvisers also convey a deep sense of empathy for the people in the room. Stopping the conversation without warning to unpack something conveys being in tune with the room’s mood.
Improvisers thrive when they get rapid feedback from the conversation. That feedback helps them forecast the next question or step in the process. They struggle when people are opaque, or when they are unable to let go of the preconceived agendas. If people aren’t ready or willing to let go of their expected topics, having a basic script to fall back on will keep an improviser from losing control of the room.
Use improvisational planning to inject spontaneity when it’s needed. Think of your script as something that you iterate upon, in real time. Be ready to say, “If this question or activity isn’t working, how will I adapt?”
To hit the middle ground between scripted and improvisational, consider preparing a branching agenda: a diagram of three or four steps, which outlined hypothetical discussion paths. This is like a “choose your own adventure book,” and should never play out the same way twice. Branching agendas serve groups that are ready to improvise, helping them get past the obvious to new ideas.