Group Facilitation

5 Ways to Doom a Work Group

Jan 2013 Portrait BWSometimes I watch a meeting of a work group and it seems like the leaders are trying to kill off the group.

Maybe they volunteered to organize the work group to tackle a difficult problem encountered by several agencies or to coordinate a joint effort like a neighborhood clean-up or community outreach campaign. They recruit people to participate and forge on with the best intentions. But then things disintegrate. Why would that happen?

Clearly, they’ve gone to the special workshop where they learned the five ways to doom a work group. Do you know them?

#1: Clearly designate some people as insiders and the rest as out of the loop.

#2: Spend no time preparing a decent agenda. The insiders will know what to talk about. The outsiders don’t matter.

#3: Have no supporting materials, hand-outs or distributed information of any kind.

#4: Use the same answer, variations on the theme “it can’t be done/we tried that before/they won’t let us,” over and over until people give up offering new ideas.

#5: Congratulate yourself on your tremendous progress and hard work.

These tried and true methods work every time. They inevitably lead to work group leaders bemoaning their lost membership and questioning people’s commitment to the cause. Soured on the work group experience, people run for cover the next time a call goes out for volunteers. A bad experience can influence people for a long time.

Like many dysfunctional things in nonprofit life, it doesn’t have to be this way. Work groups can be dynamic, energizing and very, very productive. Short-term focused problem-solving and action planning can be exhilarating but only if everyone at the table is welcomed, valued and expected to contribute.

That’s what I think based on 40 years of nonprofit experience. What do you think?





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Bless the Can-Do Folks!

Heroes and villains. Saints and sinners. In my work, I run into all of those folks but today’s topic concerns another dichotomy: the can-doers and the ‘you can’t get there from here’ folks.

As a consultant, my work is about change. No one hires a consultant to maintain the status quo. They can do that on their own. So my mission always has to do with doing something new or doing something better.  This makes for exciting and very interesting work but it’s not without its difficulties.

Because I am a consultant on a temporary mission, I have to engage other people in the task at hand. Often this means suggesting to people who have done things in a particular way for a long time or those who’ve never done it but have an opinion none the less that they do something new or better.

Here’s where we meet two kinds of people. The can-doers are the ones who were waiting for someone to bring the secret code to unlocking the door to new ideas and they are ready to rock. They’re the ones in a meeting who are totally focused, intent on the topic, nodding and taking notes. They’re the students every instructor loves to have in class. All in and ready to one up the instructor. When that happens, when you’re the consultant and someone comes up with an even better idea because you created the environment for change, that’s even better than having the great idea yourself.

The flip side are the ‘you can’t get there from here’ folks. These folks are death to a dynamic group. Everything suggested has been tried before, is too expensive, would never be approved by management, is too much work, will take too much time, and, my favorite, will require hiring another consultant. The ‘you can’t get there from here’ folks, also known as YCGTFR’rs, can deflate and depress a group beyond recognition, leaving the consultant the only person in the room with new ideas.

So are these two dichotomous groups born or made? A topic for another blog.

Let me know what you think — ever run into these folks in your work?

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Get to the Point FAST!

Jan 2013 Portrait BW

How much is too much?

This morning I was asked to talk to a governing board about scores on a federal funding application. I’d prepared a briefing memo because I NEVER speak to a group without paper. I was also ready to speak at much greater length and provide more detail than what I’d included in the memo. I really know the topic so I was, as per usual, ready to rock.

The chairperson of the group started off the day’s agenda with this caution: “When people have reports or presentations to make, let’s keep those brief, just the major points. Especially when we have a written document,” he said, looking over at me. “We can all read.”

He repeated this a couple of times and it occurred to me that the caution might have been the direct result of my presentation at last month’s meeting of the same governing board. I’d presented the results of a program evaluation. Members seemed very attentive and interested and that was all the encouragement I needed to delve into the topic chapter and verse. I thought they had appreciated the level of detail and the discussion but maybe it had been too much.

I pride myself on being able to speak without constantly referring to notes and to highlight the things that need special attention rather than hiding those things in a long list. But I have to say the chairperson’s caution to me this morning hit home.

What are three most important things this group needs to know, I asked myself. Just talk about those. And do it clearly and forcefully. It will keep the time short and convey a needed sense of urgency.

This was a good reminder for me. Decide what’s really important and zero in on that.

Even if you are in love with the topic and know a huge amount about it, prioritize.  More can always be added later when people have had a chance to see what’s most important.

It occurred to me this morning that people aren’t paying me as a consultant to walk them through a long report like they were first-graders. They wanted me to tell them where to focus their resources and energy, recognizing that both are in limited supply.

Are you a practitioner of the detailed report? Maybe it’s time to rethink your approach.

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Spruce Up Your Look!

There is a school of thought that says PowerPoint presentations are passé. Today’s audiences need more dynamic presentation media. I agree with that in the abstract. But in the day to day world where I do most of my work, PowerPoint still has a function – a big function.

A PowerPoint presentation:

1. Keeps me as the speaker on track.

2. Keeps the audience focused on the most important content.

3. Allows discussions to revolve around something everyone is seeing at the same time.

So for those reasons, I still like PowerPoint presentations. And because I’m not a genius at organizing and manipulating new, more dynamic media, I’s sticking with PowerPoint presentations for when I have to convey complex information to a diverse audience.

That doesn’t mean that presentations have to be boring.

Let’s not talk about content right now. That can be a topic for another blog. Today, let’s just talk about the look, namely, customized slide formats.

For several years, I have been working with Tessera Design on virtually every product that leaves my office – proposals, reports, and PowerPoint presentations. I find that Tessera’s customized designs elevate my presentations. Through the artwork and formatting, a consistent theme and message are created and conveyed. It’s a big plus.

This format helped me present a potentially touchy analysis of Milwaukee’s shelter system. Created by Tessera in 2010, the design had the effect of conveying that the system was itself embarking on a path of self-improvement.

At the front door1The theme was repeated with the presentations slides, reinforcing the notion that the purpose of the analysis was to drive process improvements rather than criticize.

At the front door2One of my favorite slide formats was put together for a presentation to WISCAP (2012) on developing Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area (NRSA) Plans. The NRSA designation is a creation of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that enables a local government to use federal funding much more flexibly in accordance with a plan developed collaboratively with neighborhood residents, business, and other stakeholders. It sounds like a dry, boring process but it’s actually terrific fun. A good NRSA has a lot of community involvement, a lot of people who love their neighborhood come together to make it better.

What better than a beautiful fall scene to make people see the promise of a NRSA?


Can’t you just see the neighbors out raking leaves and hear kids playing basketball in the background? The companion format for this gave just a thread of the same feel.


These are just two examples of many customized looks created by Tessera Design. They are offered here just to spark your thinking about what extra could be added to your PowerPoint. How can you make your PowerPoint pop? How can you separate yourself and your important project from the ‘ho-hum’ of PowerPoint presentations.

This is one way. No singing ducks or interactive surveys. Just good, clear information presented in a new, interesting way.

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Five Workshop Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Janice Wilberg, Ph.D.

Janice Wilberg, Ph.D.

Your workshop proposal has been accepted and you’re going to present at an important state or national conference. You’re excited because you know you have a lot of knowledge to share and doing workshops is excellent professional development. You see this as an opportunity to step up a bit in your career.

So how do you make the most out of the experience? By avoiding these five presentation mistakes:

1. Thinking you have to tell everything you know. Your workshop participants don’t want to know everything you know, they want to know the most important things. This workshop won’t be your only chance in life to share your knowledge with others. Be focused in your topic and selective in what you say.

2. Not putting your audience’s needs first. People come to a workshop with expectations. Do you know what they are? Have you thought about what you would want to know if you were in your audience? What will make people feel like your workshop was time well-spent?

3. Mistaking your workshop for amateur hour. Your presentation materials need to look sharp and be useful. This means your PowerPoint is clear and well-composed and that your handouts are keepers, that is, they are organized, attractive, and very, very helpful.

4. Getting too cute. A workshop that uses too much irrelevant technology or that asks participants to engage in little exercises that might be fun but aren’t germane to the topic will use up time at the expense of content. Generally, folks in a short workshop don’t need to get to know each other; they need to zero in on the topic. This means as crisp presentation and plenty of time for questions and answers.

5. Letting yourself get hijacked. There’s a fine line between taking questions and hearing people out and losing control of your workshop. As much as you want to seriously respond to each question, you also have an obligation to consider the needs of the entire group of participants. Practice artful ways to bring the discussion back to what the group needs. How the workshop will benefit the whole group is your biggest priority.

At the end of a successful workshop, you want to see people heading toward you and not the door. You want them to come asking for extra clarification, wanting to know how to get more information, and looking to share their own stories. That’s your aim: to engage your colleagues in really thinking and reflecting on a topic you believe is very important. Avoiding this very common mistakes will help you reach that goal.



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The Beauty of Meeting Facilitation

Good meeting facilitation techniques will make almost any important discussion better and more productive.

What facilitation does is make sure that everyone is heard in an equitable way, that is, facilitation will usually prevent a meeting being dominated by a few very strong and persistent speakers. Facilitation also organizes people’s responses and thoughts in such a way that next steps are possible. This means that participants leave the meeting knowing what they have agreed on and how to proceed in the weeks and months to come.

Facilitation techniques break down meeting topics into workable parts. Then facilitation employs different strategies to both engage participants (make sure they don’t spend the entire meeting looking at their phones) and get the best out of them, their sharpest thoughts, and their real investment.

Training in meeting facilitation is available through the Institute for Cultural Affairs and the International Association for Public Participation. Critical ingredients to a successful facilitation include:

A well-prepared facilitator: A good facilitator is respected by the group, able to manage a discussion without tamping down participation, and able to mix seat of the pants adaptation and much thinking on one’s feet in order to consolidate the discussion and move things forward.

Sensible and diverse methods: If there are 3 or 4 different discussion topics, the facilitation method for each should be different. People get bored quickly unless there is a combination of individual and group thinking, three-word answers, and longer lists, on their feet and sitting down. But there’s a caution here: facilitation that are too fancy or too wacky will put people off. Only employ a technique that you, as a participant, would like.

Visual: Good facilitation is all about VISUAL. This means drawing circles on the board to ask people to come up with ‘spokes on the wheel,’ using big post-it notes to write short ideas that can then be stuck on the wall and arranged into categories, even drawing  pictures or using TinkerToys to illustrate a concept or plan.

Wilberg Community Planning recently designed the Facilitation Plan for the Milwaukee County Mental Health Redesign Working Forum held on March 5, 2014; and several facilitation techniques were used by four trained community volunteers Not only did the forum generate really good products that will move the Redesign effort forward, people enjoyed themselves and felt that their time was well-spent.

Take a look at the summary that was produced for the Working Forum. As you read through, you’ll get a sense of the facilitation methods that were used by each discussion leader. It might get you thinking about how to manage your next important meeting. If you’re interested in learning more about meeting facilitation or need help designing a plan, email me at

Mental Health Redesign Working Forum




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The Difference between a Discussion and a Facilitated Discussion: Part 1

The nonprofit world loves meetings. An issue comes up. We need a meeting. A plan needs to be developed. We need a meeting.

We move as a group.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. Most projects will be made better if more people participate in the discussion.

But the key word is participate.

How many group discussions have you attended this month where two or three people do all the talking and the rest of the folks might as well be potted plants? It’s more than one, isn’t it? Two, three, dozens?

Generally a group discussion will follow an agenda. Most people think that an agenda is enough to keep a discussion ‘on track’ and keep participants from wandering off or circling back. An agenda may accomplish that goal but it won’t produce the type of results possible with a facilitated discussion.

Among the shortcomings of a regular group discussion is that a few people will dominate and others will coast. Unless an issue is of critical importance to a participant, he/she will wait for someone else to speak up and lead. That someone else invariably becomes the opinion leader for the group. If there are a couple of folks who speak up, they steer the discussion. In the absence of countervailing forces (other points of view), they set the group’s direction. But because not all were heard from and not all ideas put on the table, enthusiasm for next steps is weak, ownership is shallow, and progress is negligible.

Another problem with agenda-driven, non-facilitated group discussions is that they are topic-focused and not outcome-focused. When the group decides that an agenda topic has been covered (usually because no one has anything else to say), the next topic is tackled until each agenda item has gathered its share of opinions. “Does anyone have anything else to add?” is a question usually met with silence. “Ok, then, let’s go to the next item.”

People will leave a group discussion like this one feeling as if they have done their duty. They attended the meeting and maybe put in their two cents. Scratch that one off the calendar and go to the next gathering of the potted plants.

They probably won’t feel like they’ve made progress, built something, laid the foundation for a larger effort. That’s what would come from a facilitated discussion.

More about facilitated discussions in Part Two of this series.





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Do You REALLY Want Consumer Participation? Five Ways to Make It Happen


The lack of consumer participation is very high on the group hand-wringing index. Everyone knows they should have consumers involved in planning and decision-making but it’s just so ‘gosh-darn’ hard. No argument there, consumer participation is very difficult but it can be done and done well. It just takes time, commitment, and some serious, sustained creativity.

Here are five ways to increase the involvement of consumers in your planning and decision-making:

#1: Take the time to establish consumer participation as a shared value in your group.

It’s easy to announce an effort to involve consumers; easier still to say that the funding source requires consumers to be at the table. It’s one more box to be checked off. However, commitment to consumer participation among group members will be weak if there isn’t an informed and solid consensus about its value. How to accomplish this? Form a study group to examine different models of involvement. Talk to consumers about what it would take to get their enthusiastic involvement. Honestly assess barriers that may exist to participation and gauge the group’s willingness to overcome those barriers. This might mean changing the way business is done. Is the group willing to do that?

 #2: Determine what you want from consumer participation.

If you only want to fulfill a funder requirement or your own vague sense of the need for inclusion, consumers will see right through you. No one wants to attend meetings or participate in functions where they are just filling a chair with a big sign on it – CONSUMER. They want to have a genuine function and be important to the group’s planning, decision-making and community impact. One way to address this is to hammer out a consumer participation job description. Best to do this with consumers at the table to avoid the inevitable mistakes that will occur if the professionals go it alone.

#3: Be prepared to change how you do business.

First and foremost on this list is the need to look at WHEN meetings are held. It is generally not going to be possible to involve consumers in meetings that are held during the business day. Bottom line: many consumers are working and their work does not afford them the opportunity to attend meetings during the day. Conversely, professional folks are basically paid to attend meetings. That’s what they do during the day. At night and on weekends, they have family responsibilities, recreation, maybe education to fill their time. Are you willing to hold meetings in the evening or on weekend mornings? A big shock to the group system, that’s for sure, but important to think about. One way to address this may be to alternate weekday meetings with meetings held in the evenings or weekends.

#4: Find a way to pay consumers.

So often, every member of a coalition is being paid to attend meetings but we expect consumers to VOLUNTEER. Consumers quickly discern that they are the only ones expected to show their altruistic selves and it engenders resentment. It is not easy to find funding to support paying consumer stipends because not all funders understand the value of consumers’ time or buy into the notion that they should be paid for their participation. This is where a strong shared commitment to consumer participation can convince funders of its value. Paying people also speaks to their value in the process. If you really want consumer participation, show that you value it. One way to address this might be to levy a membership fee to support coalition operation as well as the payment of stipends. Seeking a sustainable line item in grant requests is another possible strategy.

#5: Make your meetings worth attending.

Don’t go through all the difficulty of getting good consumer participation only to have meetings filled with long, boring committee reports and extended ‘insider’ discussions. Make your meetings accessible in terms of location, content, and ambiance. Welcome all members. Create agendas that are decision-focused. Share useful information. Provide training on new skills. And make the environment warm, inviting, and engaging. If I had my way, every meeting would start off with a big pot of soup or table full of everyone’s favorite casseroles. Then when Consumer X walks into the school cafeteria for an after-work meeting, he smells dinner, he sees happy people, he’s nourished and ready to work. How you do this is by your group’s members making a commitment to making it happen. It’s not rocket science, it’s just chicken and rice.

Consumer participation will make whatever you’re doing better and more effective. But you get what you pay for – in terms of effort, commitment, and resources. Think about it – is it worth it to you?

Always interested in your comment and ideas. Let me know what you think!

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Listen to the People

Stress and strain, conflict and consternation are nothing new with important community projects that involve a lot of different interests, a ton of money, and little agreement about which problem to solve. This was highlighted by last week’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article looking at the city’s latest effort to reduce infant mortality. In an article entitled, “Program to reduce infant mortality slow to get going,” published as part of the newspaper’s Empty Cradles: Confronting Our Infant Mortality Crisis, reporter Crocker Stephenson tells us two stories. One story is about Tia Love, an African American mom who received intensive home visitation during her pregnancy and after her son was born and who could now well be the ambassador for the program throughout the country.

Contrast that to the tremendous frustration of the second story – the inability of local interests to form an effective and sustainable coalition to manage several million dollars in funding from the Wisconsin Partnership. Of the things we do well in Milwaukee, heaping blame may be at the top of the list. In this case, the blame goes to Patricia McManus, PhD., head of the Black Health Coalition, and an intense, uncompromising, very experienced leader in the African American community. Her complaint, as described in the article, is that the local coalition effort was not being run by the community but by outside interests. She is portrayed as the spoiler, the one responsible for the Wisconsin Partnership’s decision to pull back its substantial investment.

This kind of story is familiar to me – the faltering and weakening of coalition efforts. Usually, these are community initiatives that start with great fanfare and, often, the promise of significant  financial reward once a plan is developed. All the ‘right’ people are called to the table and they’re told to come up with a plan and a consensus. And it’s a bust. Maybe there’s a plan but there’s no consensus. Why is that?

It’s not about a person. It’s about the process. If the process is not genuine, it will fail. Either we can blame the person who keeps pointing out that it’s not a genuine process,who, in this case, I think is probably Dr. McManus, or we can figure out how to make community planning processes genuine.

It’s this simple: The technical expertise cannot lead the planning process; instead it must inform a process led by people with lived experience. In other words,  the consultant or the technical expert must essentially say to the group: How can I help you decide what to do? What information should I gather? Where should I look for answers? How do you want to make decisions?

When the technical experts lead a community planning process, everyone but them is disenfranchised. And this makes the non technical experts, aka the community, very, very angry. They feel patronized, minimized, and marginalized. They rightfully perceive that their lived experienced is viewed as less valuable than the experts’ technical knowledge. It’s conflict from the jump.

There’s an old adage in youth development work and it is, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” In providing technical support to a community planning effort, the ‘expert’ needs to demonstrate that he/she cares by keeping his/her mouth shut and listening. Of all the things a consultant is asked to do, this may be the toughest. Sit down, listen, take a back seat, understand where people who have the lived experience you lack think the process should go, and help them get there.

Everything I talk about on this blog I’ve learned the hard way. That’s why I know whereof I speak. Signing off this fine February day,


 Full link to article:

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Bridging the Gap in Group Facilitation

One of the toughest jobs as a group facilitator is to help connect people who have widely different perspectives on the same problem. In my work, it is very common to have the representatives of a major system in the same room with its consumers or other community representatives.  It’s the child welfare system administrator and a foster parent serving on the same committee or the head of a city’s economic development authority and the owner of the corner QuikStop. The systems person is thinking about budgets, outcomes, policies and procedures. The grassroots person is thinking about what happened in his/her situation yesterday, about his foster child’s problems in school or her grocery store’s inability to compete with the big box stores.

Ostensibly, the system person and the grassroots person are focused on the same topic but they rarely speak the same language. The distance between the ‘view at 30,000 feet’ and ‘boots on the ground’ is evident in how people identify problems and consider solutions. It’s even evident in the terminology they use and, most fundamentally, in the level of trust and respect they have for each other.

Good communication and problem-solving is impossible without a basic level of trust and respect. How does a group facilitator encourage this? Here are some ideas.

First and foremost, the group facilitator must be open and transparent about the process. This means saying the same things to the system representative as he/she says to the grassroots person. When one faction decides the facilitator is in the pocket of the other faction, credibility is lost.  This can be a fine line to walk.

Second, the group facilitator needs to establish a plan to proceed with the group’s work that is agreed upon by everyone. This will serve as the anchor for discussion and interaction. When things get confusing or stalled, the group can return to the plan. Work the plan and stick with the process are two of my favorite facilitation sayings.

Third, the group facilitator has to create an environment where conflict can make a productive contribution to the group’s work.  When people of differing views can openly express their opinions, talk through their concerns, and find areas of common cause, their group’s work will be 100 times better. Key point here is that the facilitator can’t be the intermediary in conflict; people have to learn to talk to each other.

Fourth, when there is white water (the going gets tough), the group facilitator finds the threads of agreement and weaves them together.  The facilitator encourages everyone to find the solution within the group and resist the urge to go outside the group to someone (do an end run) who can mandate a solution.

Fifth, the group facilitator helps people in the group establish friendships and connections that will live past the group.  This means the QuikStop owner will always feel a special connection to the economic development honcho in his/her town. It’s hard to attack a friend (not impossible, but hard) so this bodes well for their long-term working relationship.

It’s tough and tricky being the facilitator for a group of big picture/small picture folks.  Key words for success: careful, calm, neutral, and, most of all, forward-thinking.

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