Learn how to get around being asked to facilitate and participate at the same time by sharing the burden of chairing and running sessions.
Table of Contents
The Role Of The Facilitator
The Risk Of Facilitating And Participating
Ask Another PM To Facilitate
Use An External Facilitator
One of the biggest challenges I’ve found as a project manager is that I have to chair a meeting or facilitate a session and I’m often a key player who has something to contribute as well.
I remember holding a lesson learned meeting with my team and trying to put my points across while trying to sound neutral and ‘facilitator-like’ and also taking notes. There was one point where there was quite a block of silence while I tried to write things down. I filled with all the standard comments like, “I can’t write as fast as you can all talk!” and “Just give me a second to record that point.”
Not a great experience for anyone in the meeting, and highly stressful for me.
Projects involve a lot of meetings, we know that. Often, as the project manager, it is your job to chair them. ‘Normal’ meetings don’t suffer too much from having the PM as chair. It’s the facilitated type of workshop that lends itself to having a formal facilitator.
For me, that has been sessions like requirements elicitation, issues and risk brainstorming sessions, working out what goes in Phase 2. In an agile environment, that would include retrospectives.
The role of the facilitator is to keep the conversation flowing, make sure everyone gets a chance to speak, ensure all topics are covered and that the agenda is met and to make the session interesting and participative to achieve the result.
That’s quite some ask.
I can facilitate as well as the next project manager, but it is very hard to be a neutral facilitator when you have a vested interest in the outcome and something useful to add to the debate.
In agile settings, the scrum master is often the person who facilitates retrospectives. PMs and scrum masters might be the obvious choice, but they aren’t always the best choice. Both roles have a lot to contribute to the kinds of sessions they are asked to facilitate.
So what happens?
If you are trying to facilitate the session but also participate, you might notice the following things:
- Time-keeping suffers
- You aren’t taking enough of the right notes
- Not everyone is asked to contribute
- You don’t notice if the emotion in the room changes – I was in a session where this happened and I was incredibly grateful it wasn’t me facilitating that day as it got very uncomfortable
- You don’t adapt the session content to suit the interests and needs of the participants, perhaps sticking rigidly to the agenda to serve your own purpose instead of letting the conversation evolve as the situation requires
- People leave the session feeling they haven’t had a chance to express their views.
Alternatively, you might swing too far the other way: you focus so hard on providing a good facilitation experience that you don’t say anything about your own experience on the project.
I’ve been there too: I remember a lesson learned session where I felt I wasn’t permitted to comment at all on what my experience had been like as the project manager because I was ‘supposed’ to be listening and responding to the needs of the team. Afterward, I felt like my perspective hadn’t been heard, which of course it hadn’t as I didn’t speak up about the lived experience of my role on that project.
It feels like you can’t win when you are trying to both facilitate and participate.
Let’s look at some options to help address this perennial issue for project managers.
Perhaps the easiest way to address this issue is to bring in an external facilitator for the sessions that warrant it. It doesn’t have to be a true external person – I generally asked another project manager from our team.
We started doing this, in particular with lessons learned, where a PMO colleague or another project manager would facilitate the session so the project’s PM could participate fully. This worked OK although it does take some planning.
I would meet with the facilitating PM before the meeting to brief her on the personalities, projects and issues I was expecting to come up so she could do some thinking about how to best approach the session. I introduced her via email to the rest of the team so they knew in advance that someone else would be leading the meeting. We worked together on the agenda so everything important was covered and she knew what topics would most likely pull focus.
After the meeting, she sent me her notes and I added anything extra I had taken – I can’t help myself writing notes in meetings, even if I’m not the official chair!
Then I did the same for her projects.
This freed us up to contribute to the lessons learned on our own projects in our role as a project manager.
Another option is to use a true external facilitator – someone you pay specifically to come in and facilitate sessions.
I have been in sessions led by external people and have always learned a lot from them. Sometimes your vendor or a contractor will be able to step in and fill this role, especially if you are at the beginning of the project and are using external suppliers. They may be able to run requirements sessions or initial project planning meetings for you, with a particular focus on whatever service or tool they are implementing on your behalf.
Finally, you have the DIY option: you have to do it yourself. If you find yourself in this situation, here are a few tips to help you juggle the facilitator and participant role.
- Think about how you are going to take notes. Maybe video the session or use a transcription tool so you don’t have to take so many notes.
- Ask a colleague in the room to take notes too so you can compare.
- See if you can get someone to scribe for you, even if they have no knowledge of the project previously – this can take the burden off you for meeting notes.
- Delegate time-keeping to someone else in the room.
- Put the agenda on the wall or a shared screen so everyone can see what the topics up for discussion are.
- Allow plenty of time for debate.
- Share the facilitating between the team so that everyone takes a turn over time: this only works if you have many meetings to facilitate during the life of the project, like retrospectives.
- Use online tools to structure your meetings and provide the support for any exercises or activities you are going to use, making sure to check them out in advance so you know how to make them work.
My preference for workshops and lessons learned session is to have someone else facilitate so I can fully participate in my role as project manager. As a core part of the team, I want my voice to be heard.
However, I’m realistic enough to know that most of the time I’m going to simply have to find a way to juggle both roles. Hopefully the tips here will help you should you have to do that too.