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The value of external facilitation

Hershell Ezrin, OOnt
Senior Fellow

Effectively managing both virtual and in-person facilitations is a mission critical business requirement going forward.

The value of external facilitation to support achievement of business goals has long been proven.

Benefits include efficient use of corporate resources, accomplishing more in less time, with fewer meetings, and creating a shared sense of momentum. Experienced facilitation can also help to encourage broader management and employee engagement, and lead to improved meeting outcomes, including capturing different perspectives as well as areas of agreement.

Other results may include more effective handling of potentially dysfunctional group interactions than an internal facilitator could achieve, as well as bringing to bear the facilitator’s business knowledge and experience to assist in break-out group work.

Even before the pandemic disrupted the way businesses operate, the prospect of virtual facilitation offered exciting prospects to secure wider participation at lower cost and with greater convenience for all involved. The use of emerging  technology also expanded the ability to work together on projects as well as the growth of group literacy in using these new tools.

Lockdowns and lengthy closure of offices have led many businesses and associations to turn full throated to virtual interactions as the new management panacea.

Over the last COVID challenged year,  I have been asked repeatedly how to adapt facilitation skills to work with  companies and associations’ virtual environments. I have also experienced firsthand the changes needed, resulting from my teaching experience with locked down university graduate students .

One recurring challenge has been how to compensate for the absence of sustained personal contact among customers and their corporate contacts, boards and senior management,  mid-level managers and employees as well as members and staff of different associations. Those disconnects can adversely affect a range of critical business functions, starting with business planning and employee goals alignment all the way down to sales outreach.

Senior Fellow Hershell Ezrin leading an in-person session prior to the pandemic (Chris MacDonald)

Reliance on virtual meetings affects participants’ ability to sense the non-verbal cues that tell us so much about whether an idea resonates, or whether the intended message recipient is even paying attention or engaged. It makes effective follow-up, an everyday byproduct of the office environment, more uncertain.

The lack of a coherent professionally managed virtual meeting strategy and practice can result in message or organizational confusion or even people working at cross-purposes.

The lack of such expertise can also reinforce morale sapping meeting snafus or ignorance of ground breaking applications, particularly disappointing those digital natives in the millennial and generation z employee categories.

In business terms, the net result can significantly undermine what managers are striving to achieve.

Effectively managing both virtual and in-person facilitations is a mission critical business requirement going forward. Even with good news about vaccine availability and the reduction of broad lockdowns, many experts predict that a hybrid office arrangement is likely to prevail well after the COVID 19 virus is neutralized.

Demonstrating an ability to manage in this new world also sends the right message for managers to show their bosses or boards that they have adapted well to the changed business environment.



Ten commandments of facilitating virtual meetings to maximize the impact and effectiveness

  1. Know whether a virtual group meeting is your best option for achieving your goals. There are also practical limits on the size of such meetings, regardless of what technology permits. Some messages remain best communicated in one-on-one sessions.
  2. Understand that all the prerequisites of good meeting planning still apply ,whether you are meeting virtually or in-person. That includes a clear advance statement of meeting purposes and role assignments, development of relevant and engaging background materials, creating opportunities for interaction, clarification and demonstrated learning, and after the fact measurement and evaluation
  3. Process matters even more in these meetings; do not leave employees floundering because they have different proficiencies in working online.
  4. Virtual meetings are a new frontier; the proven time-tested techniques of facilitating in-person meetings do not always resonate and need to be supplemented. Practitioners agree that it is harder to work with groups remotely and reach consensus.
  5. Recognize that virtual meetings must contain ‘entertainment’ value. On the small screen , your messages are competing with and compared to the attractiveness of other professionally crafted infotainment.
  6. To secure engagement and involvement, familiarity and utilization of new applications for sharing and inputting are a must, especially to attract and retain the interest of digital natives. If Slack, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Miro or their equivalents are not part of your meeting vocabulary and process, they should be.
  7. Concentrate on providing ongoing virtual feedback to participants; they crave it
  8. Design frequent activities or interactions that require participants to be engaged. Most software supports in-meeting chat, screen sharing, white boards, Q&A or polls, and even sharing control of your desktop.
  9. Technology remains unpredictable; plan for the worst and have alternatives on hand as back-up
  10. Reduce the stress on internal staff by engaging a technically savvy support to manage the behind the scenes operation of the meeting.

Following these ten operational commandments gives every organization a vital leg up in achieving their goals.


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