Invisibly lead a room

Mill City Museum’s Cargill Library

Can a facilitator be effective if they’re invisible? I don’t mean literally, of course. But in the sense that their touch is so light you barely know they’re there.

It depends.

When less is more

I recently led a meeting in a beautiful conference room at Mill City Museum in Minneapolis. A 12-person council gathered to kick off strategic planning for its national network. It was day-one of a nine-month process. That night as I flew home to Portland, I reflected on their results. It was impressive. Council members gained insight into what a bigger impact would literally look like, and they recognized viable paths to achieve it.

For much of the time I was in front of the room. I laid the context for each exercise, gave instructions and captured ideas. As dialog opened up, I quickly became part of the background. All attention was on the conversation between council members. They questioned each other – and got clear answers back. As they surfaced new questions, they courageously probed more deeply. Joint decisions were made about priorities. They got to powerful results by themselves. Not because I charmed or pepped them up. Once a client catches the flow, my job is to stay out of the way. I offer the tiniest of adjustments when needed. Less is more.

When more is more

We all know that meetings don’t always go this smoothly. Groups can get stalled. Conflicts surface. Positive energy peaks but nothing really sticks, creating an emotional high without real results.

So, there are times when a commanding presence is more effective than an invisible one. When a group goes off the rails, there’s a vacuum to be filled – a seasoned facilitator knows how to handle those situations. And when convenings are especially large, a visible, anchoring presence at the front of the room can ground and focus everyone to keep energy from dissipating.

Final ownership

What it comes down to is this: are participants intrinsically motivated to do what needs to be done when the meeting is over?

An entertaining or engaging facilitator may help, but that alone is insufficient. The focus needs to pivot, as quickly as possible, from the person prompting the room to the perspectives of people in the room. If participants aren’t generating ideas, sharing them, listening to each other and doing give-and-take that builds on itself, they probably aren’t internalizing much. Which means they are less inclined to apply themselves in the days to come – unless it’s in their job description. And if compliance is the best you can do, don’t expect inspired results.

Successful sessions, on the other hand, create healthy tension. People end up with a clear sense of where they want to go. And they want it enough to do the necessary work.

See the signs

I look for indicators in the room that groups are building stamina and people are arriving at reasons of their own for achieving something together. When I witness one of these three indicators, I know the session is generating immediate impact and a high probability of continued impact:

  • People finish up with an emotional or intellectual hook into an idea or intriguing possibility that they genuinely care about.
  • They experience a breakthrough. For instance, an intractable problem comes into plain sight or is resolved. A truth emerges that people take time to fully assimilate.
  • The path forward becomes obvious, giving the group more clarity and momentum.

Some groups simply aren’t ready to advance. They need to (re-)form and norm before they can storm and perform. The underlying structure of the group may be at odds with its vision or mission. Even here, though, deft facilitation can function in the background, allowing the real discussion and discovery to take center stage.