How to Get Promising Meetings to Fail

The Problem with Solving

First, what is a “promising meeting”? When the session leader has confirmed a solid and necessary deliverable from the meeting participants but fails to develop an appropriate method or agenda, most meetings will flounder or fail. North Americans in particular are subject to an “over-confidence” bias and show-up expecting to develop the right method, ask the right questions, or conduct the appropriate analysis “on the fly”. Some have called this meeting syndrome, “solving”.

Over-Confidence Bias

The same over-confidence bias causes many to skip analysis and jump immediately from the problem to the solution. As a result, they frequently end-up asking pertinent but impossible questions to answer akin to “How do you solve global hunger?” or “How do you boil the ocean?”. While the participants may have a vested interest in solving the hunger issue or resolving a technical issue, the session leader has not made it easy for them to arrive at a consensual solution because the method has failed to break it down into manageable pieces.

Question Precision

One of the surest ways to get a group of vested participants to go quiet is to ask a meaningful question that is so broad as to be unanswerable.They will become numb about how to respond. Note with the “hunger” problem as an example, that hunger is a function of numerous processes such as food development, food manufacturing, food transmission, food distribution, food storage, nutrition absorption, etc. By narrowing the scope a bit and providing a focused question, a facilitator can make it a lot easier for a group to respond, such as “How could we improve food storage capacity in Somalia?” With a precise question, and narrower scope (ie, Somalia versus the entire world), it becomes much easier to provide answers such as “converts those old rail cars” or “use the abandoned mine shafts”.

Question Sequencing

Not only should the overriding question be broken into discrete questions to improve the method, but the questions will need to be sequenced as well. For example, the big question “So, what is the marketing plan for 20xx?” is better served with discrete discussions around segmentation, targeting, positioning, messaging, media, etc. For most marketing experts, it’s best to identify the target audience before going much further into the analysis or plan development.

Likewise when building a home, a residential architect needs to know “What color do you want the grout to be in the secondary bathroom?” That type of question however, while it demands an answer, is probably best saved for the end of development, after agreeing on the purpose of the home, location, size, traffic flow, etc. These additional topical areas become quite natural agenda steps that increase the robustness of the method behind the meeting, also known as an agenda.

Meeting Success

The lesson to be learned? Break it down. Speak with experts and study additional reference material. Take any significant reason or question behind a meeting and determine the various questions that could be answered in support. Find the natural groupings and create a topical flow. Now you have at least a basic agenda that will help prevent you from asking such a broad question that it could lead to meeting silence, or even failure.

Facilitation Support

Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody. For detailed support, see your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Five Ways to Facilitate Quiet People and Get Them to Participate More Fully

Please pardon the expression, but they say that a leopard cannot change his or her spots. While it is true that we are not going to convert quiet people into aggressive extroverts who dominate a meeting, there are steps that facilitators can take to transform the velocity of contributions from quiet people.

Interview Your Participants

It is so important, especially with quiet people, to establish a connection before the meeting. When you speak with participants in advance, transfer ownership of the deliverable by establishing the importance of their contribution. Emphasize the roles in a workshop, especially the protection of participants that is assured by the facilitator.

Break-out Sessions

Using break-out sessions gives quieter people permission to speak freely. When they assemble in smaller teams, they are better able to have a conversation with fewer people than needing to speak to a larger group. They discover that they are not a “lone” voice giving them increased confidence to speak on behalf of “our team,” when otherwise they might remain quiet.

Non-verbal Solicitation

Actively seek and beseech their input with open hands and eye contact. Let them know in advance that you understand their meek nature, but want to ensure that their input is not lost at critical and appropriate moments. Therefore, you intend to approach them with non-verbal signals to encourage their participation, with the absolute confidence that you will protect them by separating the value of their message from their personality. Emphasize that the facilitator protects the people first and then secures participants’ input because the content gathered is being assembled to serve the people, not the other way around.

Reinforce During Breaks

Constantly remind them (in private) that their input is important and valued. Reinforce your role as protector and ask them if they have avoided making a contribution when, perhaps, they should have spoken. Ask them if there is anything else that you can do, as facilitator, to make it easier for them to provide input.

Other Support

Other steps may be used when all else fails. Instead of a spoken round-robin, ask everyone to write down their ideas on Post-It notes or other paper so that you can gather their ideas anonymously. Consider asking a confederate (ie, another participant) to encourage their participation by specifically referring to the quiet person, stating that they “would like to here Meek’s opinion.” And finally, please add your discoveries and comments below for the benefit of others.

Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody. For detailed support, see your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

How to Converge Your Brainstorming Input—Key Measure (continued)

Brainstorming‘s third activity, frequently called ‘convergence’, may take the form of decision criteria. Criteria can take different forms, as shown below.


Here we define how an organization will measure its progress as it reaches toward its future vision.

Defined—key, measures, objectives, goals, and considerations:

  • A key is something of paramount or crucial importance.
  • A measure is a standard unit used to express the size, amount, or degree of something.
  • An objective is a desired position reached or achieved by some activity by a specific time. Objectives provide measurable performance [ ≣ ].
  • A goal is a directional statement that may remain fuzzy or subjectively measurable [ ☁ ].
  • A consideration is an important management issue, constraint, or concern that will affect reaching the objectives
    [ ✓ ].


Key measures must support measurements toward the vision of the organization. They enable a group to better shape and define the most appropriate strategies, activities, or tactics (ie, WHAT to do to reach the vision). In the Six Sigma arena, objectives are frequently referred to as CTQ, or Critical to Quality measurements.

Expected Output

Clearly and properly defined objectives result from this step, along with a list of goals and other considerations.

  • CTQ would substitute the following questions for the SMART test:
  1. Is it specifically stated with upper and lower specification limits?
  2. Is it directional so that we can objectively determine whether it is increasing, decreasing, or staying the same?
  3. To what extent is it linked to specific customer needs connected to the objectives of the project?


Use ideation to develop candidate key measures: Describe the rules of ideation in Brainstorming. Define the terms (generally—methods of determining progress). List all candidate measures, perhaps stimulated by voice of the customer or customer types, and focus on items that overlap. When the group exhausts the list, review each candidate and separate into potential categories by coding them as shown. objectives [ ≣ ], goals [ ☁ ], and considerations [ ✓ ] Review potential objectives [ ≣ ] and make them SMART. Do not show the SMART definition however until after you have captured the raw/ draft input. Consider using homogenous break-out groups to convert raw input into final form, SMART objectives (ie, Specific, Measurable, Adjustable [and challenging], Relevant [and achievable], and Time-based). Separately list and fully define the remaining goals and other important considerations.

Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody. For detailed support, see your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

How to Analyze Brainstorming Input (continued)

We have covered some popular methods of analysis in other blogs. Here we look at framing the scope of arguments, projects, and programs, which demands more structure than can be afforded through simple discussion. While the framing tool has various names, and uses, it frequently is called “Is Not/ Is”. Faster to build than a context diagram, meetings that are designed to support projects, are best served by having or creating a frame that helps ensure consistent decision-making.


To create a scoping statement—what may or may not be included in a field of work. It is best to begin with the “Is Not” (ie, OUT) items and then continue with what “It Is” (IN) items.


Groups need a tool to help them stay focused and prevent drift. When the group agrees what something is, they should also test it by confirming what it is not.


Various methods may be used to capture input, including the use of sub-teams, Post-It® notes, electronic submission, and off-line information gathering. Consider gathering input from multiple perspectives (see our Root Cause Analysis tool for other perspective suggestions). Frequently it is advisable to include framing analysis along with the Categorizing tool.  Frequently there are similar or redundant inputs that can be eliminated or chunked together.

Once the group feels comfortable with how they have categorized what is not or is part of the subject matter at hand, it can be helpful to convert the raw input into an articulate narrative paragraph. The final statement, or few sentences, serves as an appeal to later to see if something should be included or not (or applied to the frame itself as “uncertain” or even the Parking Lot as beyond immediate scope).

Let the group know that the statement can be modified later if they find it advisable, usually to sharpen the edges and make the scoping even clearer than the original. Most items should be IS NOT or IS but some items remain undecided until they are resolved or escalated to a sponsor or review board to decide.

“Shape clay into a vessel;
it is the space within that makes it useful.

Carve fine doors and windows,
but the room is useful in its emptiness.

The usefulness of what is
depends on what is not.”

— Wisdom of the Tao, Eleventh Verse

Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody. For detailed support, see your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).


How to Facilitate Consensual Definitions

The analysis activity of brainstorming begins when the ideation energy begins to wane. An indicator that it may be time to transition to analysis could be a question raised about what a term means, or someone raising an argumentative point that something can or cannot satisfy a specified condition or requirement.

Session leaders are faced with groups and participants (who may be in violent agreement with each other) who need to develop consensual understanding about what a particular term, phrase, or expression means. The most underutilized tool in the sphere of facilitation is a robust definition tool. Therefore the first step that is frequently required to support effective analysis is to properly define something. A robust method will include at least four discrete steps.


To build an operational definition of a term that the group can live with, in its own words, and with its own understanding. Since a narrative description is but one-way to capture meaning, we also want to support the definition with visual support or illustration.


To provide support to a group that needs to consensually arrive at the definition and meaning of something, whether concrete or abstract. This step supports understanding terms and concepts, but may not be robust enough for supporting complex interactions like processes.


When something requires further definition or understanding, it may be best to start with a dictionary definition(s). However, do not use the dictionary definition, rather offer it as stimulus for the group to draft its own operational definition. The four steps include:

  1. Contrast “WHAT IT IS NOT” with “WHAT IT IS”. The terms used will likely capture general characteristics.
  2. Compile a narrative sentence or paragraph in their words. Try to avoid starting with a blank sheet of paper (ie, use a dictionary or other professional definitions and support).
  3. Build a list of bullets that may be used to display the specific characteristics or requirements of the term. For example, with a camera, we might be concerned with mega pixels, zoom, etc.
  4. Illustrate the definition with real-life examples from their experience, supporting the situation at-hand. For example, a utility bill can be defined, but it is helpful to show an actual invoice (eg, AT&T service for the period 1/15/20xx to 2/14/20xx).

Our next segments will discuss various analysis methods for that which has now been defined.

Let us know what you think by commenting below. For additional methodology and team-based meeting support for your change initiative, refer to “Change or Die, a Business Process Improvement Manual” for much of the support you might need.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Do not forget to order Change or Die if you’re working on a business process improvement project. It provides detailed workshop agendas and detailed tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective—daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.

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