Kick Off for Clarity
When you’re kicking off a content strategy project, think of yourself as a consultant (even if you’re internal to the organization). One of a consultant’s primary jobs is to create clarity. That’s what this alignment session is all about.
With that in mind, think about whether you can be both the consultant or facilitator and an active participant. Most experienced facilitators will suggest that you bring in someone from the outside (not necessarily outside the organization, but outside the project) to facilitate one of these clarity-getting conversations.
It’s really up to you. If you feel you’ll have a hard time facilitating conversation because you’ll be worried that your viewpoints won’t be heard and included, ask a colleague to help. If you’re working with a consultant, you should probably let the consultant lead the meeting.
Now let’s dig in to some facilitation best practices and tips.
Group Decision Making
It’s important to understand how group decision making works so you don’t become discouraged when things seem to be falling apart—and a time will occur in your meeting when the process does seem to be falling apart. That usually happens before a big breakthrough.
In the book Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making, Sam Kaner and his team coined the Diamond of Participatory Decision Making to explain this phenomenon. It’s a pretty useful reminder of how your meeting is likely to go.
In a nutshell, the diamond suggests that you’re going to start with a lot of ideas and opinions. Then, you’re going to get to a point where a lot of discussion and disagreement take place, consensus may be hard to come by, and everyone will be frustrated. But then, the ideas will converge, and you’ll sigh collectively. The example alignment session plan from the Content Strategy Tool 4.1 was designed to take advantage of how group decisions are typically made.
These pretty simple ground rules before you get started are kind of a no-brainer, but a good reminder nonetheless. You wouldn’t need the rules if they were never broken, intentionally or unintentionally. The ones I typically start with are:
- No laptops, no phones (unless you need them to participate).
- Avoid interrupting.
- Every opinion is valid, and no idea is a bad idea when brainstorming.
- Asking for clarification is OK.
- Everyone talks and everyone listens.
- No side conversations.
You might not need all the rules on this list, and you might need others that aren’t listed, depending on your office culture. You can add ground rules as you go if you notice things going awry.
The person facilitating the discussion is a bit like connective tissue, employing techniques to spur discussion, connect the dots, build on ideas, and identify agreement and disagreement.
Here are just a few of those techniques.
Paraphrasing is all about letting the participants know that you’re listening and reiterating their thoughts to the larger group. Paraphrase to get clarity and to ensure everyone understood what was said. Use phrases like “I think what you’re saying is Is that what you meant?”
Drawing people out
Sometimes stakeholders will have a hard time articulating their idea, which can cause them to stop trying to explain it and withdraw. The facilitator can—and should—help in these situations. Start by paraphrasing what you think they meant, and then ask a follow-up question such as “Can you think of an example when that happened?” or “Tell me a little more about that.”
I’m sure you’ve been in a meeting when suddenly two or more conversations are happening at the same time. Sometimes side conversations are taking place (which are against the ground rules!). But sometimes people are just focused on different aspects of a question. All those aspects are likely important. As a facilitator, you want to listen for the various tracks and lead conversations around them. When you notice multiple conversations, you can say, “It seems we’re discussing a few different things here. Let’s talk about them one at a time so that we don’t lose anything.”
If you’re like me, this silence thing is really difficult. It’s also really effective. You can use it a few ways. One is to just give people a chance to collect their thoughts. Don’t jump to fill the silence. Another is to slow down the conversation when something exceptional has happened—someone shares an idea that seems to blow everyone away, or agreement was reached when you never thought it would be. And sometimes, people just need a break. It’s OK to say, “Let’s just sit for a minute and process what we’ve just discussed.”
Well that’s the whole point of this alignment session, isn’t it? A key point to remember about consensus and alignment is that they don’t necessarily mean total agreement in what was decided. What it does mean is that the people in the room agree to move forward with a set of objectives the group came up with together.
Consensus is reached when all participants feel their ideas have been heard and considered. And when all people feel this is true, they are more likely to stand behind the project and stay engaged. That’s what you need for your project to be successful.