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What happens when you’re not set-up for facilitation success?

Two experienced learning and development practitioners weigh in.


Last Thursday, I wrote about the 5 essential ingredients for a successful leadership meeting, strategic planning session or retreat.

More often than not, we’re asked to design and/or facilitate meetings in the absence of one or more of these essential ingredients. Recently, I asked two extremely experienced L&D practitioners what they’d do if they were missing some of these ingredients. 

Mary Larson is a leadership consultant and coach who is currently on the faculty at Central Washington University.

Karen Thornton is a Learning Consultant with Slalom Consulting and continues to serve in various leadership roles for the ATD Puget Sound chapter.

Following is their advice on what to do in the event you’ve been requested to facilitate a high level meeting under less than ideal circumstances:

Essential Ingredient #1: Strong executive sponsorship

KT: If you don’t have sponsorship, I’d say: work harder to get it. Be patient and persistent. Develop the relationship and trust needed in order to promote the program/objectives and deliver successfully. Without sponsorship I question the ability to deliver successfully in the short-term with a productive meeting or the long-term with executing what is defined during the meeting.

ML: Come back to me after the next essential ingredient. I think they go hand-in-hand.

Essential Ingredient #2Clearly defined outcomes

ML: As L&D and OD (organizational development) professionals, clear executive sponsorship and alignment of clearly defined outcomes need to be a big part of how we measure success. You can have the best training event ever, but without strong executive sponsorship and clearly defined outcomes, it is just that – an event.

KT: I have had success with a high performing team defining outcomes in the moment. That is, if you don’t have clearly defined outcomes prior to the meeting, the first part of the planning session can be facilitated in such a way that all participants take an active role in defining what a successful meeting will look and feel like, and defining the objectives. Then, prioritize the objectives and focus on the several you can accomplish in the time you have. Even with the best designed meeting, strategic planning is typically an ongoing process. After the initial meeting, inspect what went well and what objectives were accomplished, make objectives more concise if needed, and consider another session to continue the process.

Essential Ingredient #3: The right people in the room

KT: If the ruthless attendee prioritization wasn’t done or wasn’t done well (or if someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed that day), as the facilitator you’re going to need all your tools in your tool belt at the ready. Manage the agenda flawlessly. Define and be diligent with facilitating a decision making process. If consensus is expected, give them a tool to define consensus and common language to use in dialogue. Whether the wrong people are in the room or the right people aren’t in the room, you may have your work cut out for you, both during and after the meeting.

ML: There are so many aspects to this particular ingredient. Diversity in opinion and experience brings us new and innovative ways of thinking. I’m a firm believer this is where innovation truly happens. If the meeting doesn’t start with the right mix, or if there’s only a handful of voices drowning everyone else out, a strong facilitator will be needed to ensure all voices are heard and contributing. Who wants to just listen to the wind bag? Remember: the wind bag (even if he or she is the highest ranking official in the room) can only blow a constant stream of hot air if everyone in the room, including the facilitator, allows it.

Essential Ingredient #4: The desire to make others look good

ML: All working toward a greater good. Think back to your more successful trainings and facilitations as an L&D or OD professional and I’ll bet the audience was motivated and inspired by something bigger than themselves. Even if there’s a clear undercurrent of office politics permeating throughout the room, it’s our job to work with the sponsors to tap into that “greater good” vision, or again, it just becomes an event we attended and we can forget about the content or outcomes before both feet cross the threshold of the exit door.

KT: I would hazard to guess that the foundation of the desire to make others look good is an established, trust-based relationship among the participants. If it doesn’t already exist there are ways to start establishing the necessary trust for a successful planning session (and I’m not talking trust falls or zip lines, although you know I’m down for those, too). Whether as pre-work for participants or at the start of the session, use an activity like Patrick Lencioni’s personal histories exercise or team effectiveness exercise.  It doesn’t beat the vulnerability-based trust established through shared experiences over time that Lencioni writes about. But, it’s a start.

Essential Ingredient #5: Thoughtful, inclusive design

ML: Great design is like the glue that brings together all the other ingredients of training success you mentioned. As an L&D or OD practitioner, it’s our job to be lifelong continuous learners ourselves and actively seek out new ways to engage our learners to accomplish the objectives set.   We can never sit idle and think we know it all or can just pull it off. Our learners are too smart and savvy for that, and their time (and our time) is too little and too precious to not maximize the moment.

KT: Don’t all strategic planning sessions include puzzles, lock boxes, colorful baseball caps and popcorn? Seems you were willing to make others look good. Thoughtful, inclusive design is an ingredient that shouldn’t be left out or replaced with some other found-it-in-my-pantry-so-I’ll-use-it ingredient.

There you have it. Some thoughts about why these ingredients are important and what to do in the event one or more of them are absent. If you have anything to add in the event any of these elements are missing, what have you done (or would you do)? Let’s hear about it in the comment section!

Let’s meet!

Will you be at the eLearning Guild’s FocusOn Learning Conference in Austin next week? If so, I’d love to connect. Drop me a line at brian @

Or perhaps you’ll be in Chicago for the Online Learning Conference in September? Mike Taylor and I will be presenting about practices and tools that the marketing and advertising world use and that L&D practitioners should adopt. If you’ll be in Chicago for that conference (or if you just live in the Chicago area), I’d love to connect!

And of course, if you’re in Seattle, drop me a line any time and we can grab a cup of coffee and compare stories about training and facilitation.



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