Improve your Facilitation Skills
kHUB post date: November 6, 2023
Read time: 10 minutes
As a coach, I facilitate almost every session that I attend. The group size ranges from 3 to 100 people. These are some of my top techniques for getting the most out of individuals in a group setting.
Teams regularly need to have thoughtful and wide-ranging discussions.
Unfortunately, many teams are dominated by one or two vocal members that stifle conversation.
This leads to fewer ideas being generated, less buy-in from the whole team and shorter, if any, substantive discussion.
This happens when a team leader is that vocal team member or they take a passive approach to facilitation, letting the team go in the easiest direction.
This avoids conflict but leaves many good ideas unsaid and increases tension as less assertive team members are repeatedly overlooked.
Over time, this pattern results in groupthink defined as “the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility.”
Avoid groupthink by using these facilitation techniques:
- Make space and time for contribution
- Encourage 100% participation
- Provide blind voting opportunities
- Slow down the frequent voices
- Build confidence for team members
- Don’t be boring → Change up the group activities
- Advanced tips
Make space and time for contribution
Techniques that give people the opportunity to contribute:
Create a standing meeting or two each week to create, collect, and develop ideas.
Someone on the team takes the lead as facilitator and decides which exercise and technique to use to fit the current need.
A common use of this time is to do product discovery exercises.
Create sessions where decision making is done transparently.
Getting feedback before making a decision is critical for making better decisions and getting team buy-in.
Business isn’t a democracy but we can commit to listening to our colleagues.
Decisions that are made alone feel arbitrary and drive low morale.
Encourage 100% participation
Not everyone is a fast thinker. Nor should they have to be.
Give people the time and space to think first, then contribute.
These techniques engage individuals in critical thinking. They put all contributions on the same level without preferring the first idea that’s mentioned.
Over time, each team member will think more for themselves and develop their own point of view rather than relying on the most vocal team members to do all the thinking.
Type and wait
In an online meeting, pose a question. Everyone types their answer in the chat window but does NOT tap Enter/Return to send the chat. When folks are ready, countdown “3-2-1-Enter”. At which point, everyone taps Enter/Return and the chats fly into the chat window.
Benefit → Each person creates at least one answer for the assigned task. They can’t be passive. Writing is a thinking process and even a small chat can inspire the attendee to think more deeply. As a result, the group hears from all attendees and includes all voices.
Source of technique → I learned this from Felipe Castro during one of his OKR workshops.
Work together alone
In a working session, assign a task. Each individual attempts the task on their own: sketching a solution, creating a product idea, or figuring out a success metric. When finished, each person posts their efforts to an in-person or virtual board. Have a couple individuals share their efforts.
Benefit → Each individual has to think deeply enough to finish the task on their own. They can’t rely on the most outspoken team member to take over and do the task. Doing a task makes you think more deeply than just watching and waiting for someone else to do the task. This pressure creates a deep thinking moment. The team benefits from having more ideas to work from…more possibilities to choose from. The team can drive to consensus using voting, discussion and if necessary relying on a decision maker. (see Advanced Tips).
Source → Sprint book
No spectators. No scribes
Each person writes their own contribution to the exercise (usually a virtual or physical sticky note).
Benefit → Many groups devolve into having one person, call them a “scribe,” who writes down everyone’s comments and ideas. The scribe may get frustrated being everyone’s secretary. And if the scribe doesn’t write down an idea then team members wonder if the scribe is judging and omitting their contribution. Since writing is thinking, the suggester misses out on completing their own thought. They leave this to the scribe who has to stretch and create exact words from a vague thought.
Provide blind voting opportunities
Techniques to provide psychological safety when making decisions
Blind voting (remote team)
In Miro (and other virtual boards), you can set up a voting session where individuals cast votes anonymously. The facilitator selects an area of the virtual board and indicates to the team what to vote on and then sets a timer. The virtual board tallies the vote and presents the results to everyone on the board.
Benefit → In many decision sessions, there’s often a short discussion dominated by more assertive individuals and the preference of the other team members gets lost. Using a blind voting system places each person on equal footing since they can’t see others’ votes while they are being cast. Voting itself is a thinking process and so everyone is forced to weigh the different options and place a vote. Blind voting hides others’ votes which prevents groupthink. Blind voting equalizes the playing field for everyone’s opinion.
Blind voting (in-person team)
In person, it’s hard to be anonymous. People know each other’s handwriting. People see you put the sticky note on the wall. With Note and Vote, everyone quietly decides on their choice. Then the facilitator counts down “3-2-1-Vote” and everyone places their vote at the same time.
Benefit → As everyone votes at the same time, there is much less groupthink. If you allow folks to come up one at a time and place their vote, then less confident individuals might just vote for the popular concept. You’ll lose a chance to have the ideas of less assertive team members be chosen.
Source → Sprint book
Slow down the frequent voices
First, use the Encourage 100% participation techniques listed above.
By slowing down the frequent voices, you avoid the group settling on the first idea that gets mentioned.
Avoid feelings of being left behind. Avoid the sense of having lost out on the opportunity to contribute.
Rotate who shares
Frequent voices aren’t inherently bad but they crowd out other voices. At the start of facilitating a group, I ask for volunteers to comment and contribute. For each subsequent exercise, I’ll rotate through different volunteers to present their ideas.
At some point, I run out of extroverts. Then I ask specific people who might have their camera on (remote meetings) or who make eye contact with me (in person). These are usually the next layer in the group ready to converse after the initial share outs have been done.
At this point, the less assertive individuals in the group should be at their most comfortable having seen models of how to contribute. Go ahead call on the silent individuals to contribute.
Note that some folks don’t want to talk at all in a large group so this may only work in a smaller group. Use common sense. Don’t overly pressure anyone.
Have talkative voices contribute last
At some point, it’s very clear to the group who the most frequent contributors are. We need to encourage the less asseertive team members to contribute without stifling the most talkative ones.
For now, let’s call the talkative person → Todd Kahtiv
The next time I open up the sharing portion of an exercise, I say in a nice way:
“Let’s share our ideas and I’ll ask Todd to go last.”
“Let’s start with a non-Todd individual to share their ideas.”
Todd generally knows they are the talkative one and gets what I’m trying to do.
Use a timer druing sharing time
Timing an individual while they share their ideas sounds rude. But it’s actually a technique to provide space and time for everyone to contribute.
It also keeps the session on track and focuses the over-talkers and over-sharers on their core points. Some folks take a long time to get to their point. The timer forces them to pick their words and focus.
When the timer goes off, I don’t cut people off but I now have license to ask them to wrap it up so that we can get more ideas shared. The timer acts as an equalizer so that the less assertive folks can contribute. The timer is a neutral third party we can blame for being rude. Otherwise everyone will blame the facilitator for the negative energy of cutting folks off.
Build confidence for team members
It's not enough to bring people together and say "Go".
Don’t assume everyone in the room has the same confidence or desire to contribute as you do.
Take the next step and create the right environment for the team you're working with.
Break down complex tasks into smaller pieces
Contributing a piece is easier than creating a whole from scratch.
Many times in a decision or working session, there is an individual or two who knows much more about the subject matter than the others. In these cases, break the session down into component parts.
For example, if you’re discussing customer problems and what success looks like, then you can first discuss customers then follow with problems and then success metrics.
Then, put it all together in the last part of the session. It may seem simplistic to discuss each component on its own but it allows for less knowledgeable contributors to catch up one step at a time.
Otherwise catching up all at once can be overwhelming and thus reduce their participation.
Make the group smaller
Smaller groups drive more participation by decreasing stress for individuals who don't usually contribute.
Often when I visit a breakout room in a virtual meeting, individuals who previously had their video feed off will have it turned on for the smaller group.
Use the Breakout Rooms feature in virtual meetings or split the group into separate physical areas during in-person sessions.
Provide anonymity for sensitive topics
In my role as a coach, I need to explore my teams' anti-patterns and internal company tensions in order to make change happen.
In some cases, employees are attending my sessions along with their managers which makes anonymity even more important.
To tap into these tensions, I need to create a psychologically safe environment.
I create moments for anonymous contribution to relieve the stress (and perhaps the reprisals) of mentioning uncomfortable truths.
Here are two ways to provide anonymity in a group setting to enable the sharing of controversial thoughts.
(Online) In Miro (and other virtual boards), there is a Private mode. When enabled, Private mode hides the text of others’ stickies and who the author of a sticky is. At the end of the private session, the words on the sticky notes are revealed. The authors are not retained in the metadata so these are truly anonymous contributions. I do this when soliciting sensitive information, ”anti-patterns” and other negative feedback.
(In-person) Everyone writes their sensitive information onto a sticky note. I collect the notes, reorder them, and summarize concepts to protect individual identities. I even shield the handwriting from the audience to maintain anonymity.
Give permission to make "mistakes"
Folks will often stop writing their thoughts down if they see someone else writing it first.
I implore my teams to press on and write down their thoughts even if they see someone else writing that thought.
This helps the person get their thoughts down and allows me to rotate who I can call on to discuss a concept.
If only the fast writers and quick talkers contribute then I never hear from the quiet ones.
I also say “wrong answers are okay” when I’m tackling harder topics where very few folks want to step up and share.
Private Mode (Miro)
Don’t be boring → Change up the group activities
Bring the energy. Bring the fun.
Mix up your techniques to keep sessions interesting.
Get your team to smile and laugh. Yes, at work.
Instead of thinking of the best way to solve a problem...
...brainstorm the worst possible solution.
Use the Work Alone Together technique to have everyone on their own create negative ideas while in the same meeting.
Encourage folks to go negative. Once you've found totally preposterous ideas, you're on the right track.
Next, give each person a negative idea from someone else.
Each person transforms the negative idea into a positive one. The only requirement is to retain a hint or essence of the bad idea.
- Product area: Reducing wait time for an Uber driver picking up a passenger
- Negative idea: "Lock the doors so the passenger can't get in."
- Transformed versions:
- Give passenger ability to unlock door with a tap in the Uber app
- Have passenger answer a trivia question to unlock door
- Play an unlock sound in the Uber app when the driver arrives such as the sound a car makes when it's unlocked or when a vault safe opens.
The negative ideas should make people smile and laugh and help loosen them up for the transformation part of the session.
Mixing it up with negative brainstorming will keep the energy flowing in your sessions.
Use a scenario to create a puzzle for the audience to solve
Think up a scenario that tests an individual’s learnings.
Scenarios do not have to be super complicated.
They exist to stimulate long term memory by forcing the team member to recall the learnings that were just covered in the working session.
Use a scenario involving a competitor if you are discussing product strategy.
Use a scenario involving different product features to compare and contrast results from making different decisions.
Product area: Uber wants to get more drivers
Scenario: Uber has heard that people want to be drivers but can’t afford cars. They are thinking of helping drivers with various car loan and purchase programs. How can it test this and other solutions BEFORE ever creating the actual program?
Source → The Workshop Survival Guide
Alternate how attendees write responses
Do you always ask attendees to write sticky notes?
Whatever you always do, change it up.
Rotate the following techniques to have some fun and keep your attendees engaged:
Emojis: Everyone responds with a thumbs up or down emoji. Or pick an animal (eg, cats for yes. dogs for no)
Chat window: Everyone chats their response (Use the Type and Wait technique)
Hand gestures: Try out the Fist of Five voting system
Sticky notes: Everyone writes a sticky note (virtual board or in-person on actual sticky notes). Remember writing is thinking. Don't just have people think of a response. Have them write it down.
Sketch: Everyone gets paper and draws a response. Good for more open ended prompts. Even stick figures can tell a story.
Make decisions when necessary
With these facilitation techniques, you will generate more feedback from more team members.
You may feel sessions drag on as you try to collate contributions and make decisions.
Many teams desire to make decisions in a consensus manner. They want everyone to feel included.
But with more feedback there will be conflict and disagreement. Make sure to acknowledge the disagreement and try to find common ground.
But in order to stay on track, it might be necessary for the facilitator to make a decision and move forward.
There will never be enough information and it’s rare to always have consensus.
The key is to measure and monitor the results of your decisions so that the team can iterate and learn.
Source → Sprint book
Keep small groups on track with a Timekeeper
When you create breakout rooms (online) or small groups (in-person), you can’t be in all places at once. Once separated from you, teams will tend to get distracted and fall off track.
To set up breakout rooms for success, appoint a Timekeeper in each group (usually I ask for a volunteer). Give them the responsibility for keeping the group on time.
Interestingly, this creates a de facto group leader who typically helps the group get started and stay on track in addition to finishing on time.
If there are blockers, the Timekeeper is a natural person to reach out to the facilitator for advice.
Figure out when groups are ready to move on
I often allocate a time period to contribute ideas to an exercise. But don’t be strict about these time frames since you may lose folks to multi-tasking.
Envision the process of cooking microwave popcorn. When the popping stops, turn off the microwave and pull out the popcorn bag.
For groups, when the pace of contributing ideas slows down then call for last ideas and end the exercise.
About the author
Jim coaches Product Management organizations in startups, scale ups and Fortune 100s.
He's a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with over two decades of experience including an IPO ($450 million) and a buyout ($168 million). These days, he coaches Product leaders and teams to find product-market fit and accelerate growth across a variety of industries and business models.
Jim graduated from Stanford University with a BS in Computer Science and currently lectures at UC Berkeley in Product Management.