I recently read a brief article posted on the PMI® website about planning and facilitating requirements workshops. The article itself was cursory; good for the non-PM who might not realize that the average project manager job description really reads something like this:
- Primarily based in an office setting, most likely a cubicle, must be able to withstand an average decibel rating somewhere near that of the primates cage at the zoo
- Must be able to attend mind-numbingly long meetings without falling asleep while appearing actively engaged in conversation
- Must possess advanced degree(s), yet be willing to take meeting minutes for 6 hours per day, be able to fix the copy machine, and book meetings in 12 time zones
- Must be able to facilitate discussions, keep topics on task to resolve issues, make decisions and move projects forward on time, within scope and on budget
The first requirements are easy, it’s the final one that separates the talented PMs from the ones that just pass the test and slap PMP on their resume.
When you are working with a project manager you may not even recognize their skill as a facilitator as a unique talent. There is just something about their projects that go more smoothly, have fewer problems, and always seem to come in on budget. But, if you pay attention, you may notice the subtle techniques that go into making even the most mundane activities go smoothly.
Take a regular team meeting for example. A masterfully run meeting will have the advance preparation completed ahead of time, a thoughtful and appropriate agenda has been planned. If there are routine statuses to be reviewed, these were looked up in advance. If conversations are diverging off topic, the facilitator gently but firmly guides them back to the topic at hand. This is not as easy as it looks, it takes finesse to know the audience and the topics. Sometimes it is critical in the project lifecycle to go off topic to solve an issue, other times it is more important to stay on task, end the meeting on time and ask that the topic be discussed at a later time. A good facilitator takes all the variables into account to make the decision appropriately for each meeting.
Next the facilitator makes sure that there isn’t a single person dominating the conversation; he or she needs to check the vibe, if you will, that each participant is putting out. What sense are they getting as to participation level? Is everyone buying into the decision, or is there distention in the group, has someone mentally checked out and why? Just because everyone says, “Yes I agree,” doesn’t mean they actually did. What was the feeling in the room or on the call? Does the history of the topic tell the facilitator otherwise?
The facilitator has to have different ways to get to these answers by calling out individuals without putting them on the spot to see if there is truly agreement. The facilitator needs to get to the actual answer while preserving relationships and allowing all attendees to save face. One way is to generally open the question to the floor, “Is the group sure that we want X, until yesterday I had still heard that some wanted Y.” This provides space for others to talk and even introduces the alternate opinion. Alternatively, echo the decision, “What I am hearing is that we are going with X, are there other options we should consider?” You’ll often be surprised who will speak up when the option is offered where otherwise they would have stayed silent given a blank slate.
I’ve found that meeting attendees are more than happy to leave meetings without making decisions, happy to defer to the next meeting – even when there is no ‘next’ meeting planned. It is up to the project manager as facilitator to keep this on track and ensure that movement toward and through various decisions are make throughout the project. It’s important to stop the meeting at decision points, if a decision is not being made ask why. Often basic decisions are put off during meetings and conscious awareness by the PM can drive these to conclusion, “Are we going with a Yes or No on the decision to order the equipment during June?”
Similarly, meeting attendees are often happy to look to the ceiling, check their notes or recent manicure when it comes time to assign actions items. The best-case scenario is when an appropriate owner volunteers for each action item. When this doesn’t happen one of my favorite tricks is to ask, “So, who is the most appropriate person to own this action item?” The key here is to outwait your audience. The proper owner knows who they are, they just need the time/silent peer pressure to volunteer. Within 15 seconds, which may feel like a lifetime, someone will speak up. Even if the result is to say, “It’s my item, but I really don’t have the time to take it on this week,” this is great progress. An answer like that leads nicely into a next step of either, “Can someone help Bob with this?” or “Can we defer/cancel/make smaller this task for Bob?” This outcome as a whole is far better than having the PM announce that the task is Bob’s; Bob hangs his head as he writes a note knowing he doesn’t have time to get to this and next week everyone is silently frustrated that Bob didn’t get to the task that everyone remembers him as having signed up for.
Some of the weakest project managers I have worked with are those that follow their project plan like a checklist of to-do items that will lead them to enlightenment. “As long as I create a Gantt chart, make a list of risk and issues, add up the expenditures and I tick these boxes off as they are complete, we are successful.” These project managers seem to lack the intuition required to be truly fantastic in the role.
The question remains in my mind whether you can train someone to be good at facilitating their way through projects. Or, is it the intuitive spirit of some individuals that they can read others to know how best to bring a team together, manage each personality individually and efficiently to move a group successfully through the dance that results in a successful project?
If you are in fact lucky enough to know a master facilitator who has chosen Project Management as a career stop by and thank them for taking meeting minutes 6 hours per day.
Jessica is passionate about project management, process efficiencies, and working with amazing teams. She lives with her husband in Boulder, CO, and is most likely to be spotted around town trail running on the weekends.