Master Facilitator Journal | Issue #0299, April 24, 2007 ....

Dear friends,

In this week's issue, "Slow Down to Speed Up," we revisit a basic tenet of group dynamics, the distinction between task, process, and relationships. This issue, like many of our past issues, is equally relevant and useful for group leaders and participants alike. Feel free to pass this on to your students facilitation or clients interested in become more facilitative in their groups.

I'm looking for stories...stories from the field of meeting participants to include in my upcoming book, "This Meeting Sux, I'm Taking Over." I'm looking for non-facilitators who attend meetings to try out some of the skills I offer in the book and report back on their experiences. If you know any individuals or groups that would like to benefit from this offer, please reply to this email with your ideas.

Have a great week!

Steve Davis
Publisher and Founder of


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The Point

Slow Down to Speed Up
Improve the meeting “process” as an investment in your meeting future

Group Process Skill

There was once a delivery truck that had a transmission problem that prevented it from traveling more than 20 mph. The driver was very busy. Each and every day, he had a full schedule of deliveries. From time to time, his colleagues would ask, “Hey Phil, when are you going to get that transmission fixed?” To which he would reply, “I’d love to, but with all the deliveries I have to do, I just don’t have the time.”

Regrettably, this is how many groups function. They are so busy working to get things done that they don’t take the time to look at how they might improve “how” they’re doing them. Just like Phil, they may be doing things terribly ineffective ways, but complain that they don’t have the time to fix them.

This is silly when you think about it. Isn’t it? It’s like running on a flat tire because you don’t have time to fix it. Just taking a bit of time to look at “how” you’re doing things can make a huge difference. This does mean that you’ll have to slow down for little while to examine and adjust your approach, but the gains you realize from that point on can be significant.

The “Who, What, and How of Effective Meetings

I am constantly fielding response to comments like these.

“The people on my team just don’t show up prepared.”

“People on my team just don’t seem to take our work seriously.”

“My team members are constantly fighting over issues that are obviously personal.”

And the list goes on. What do these issues have in common? They have more to do with “how” people are working, or not working together than on the actual task. “How” problems are often the most common aren’t they? I’ve yet to hear from a fully functional group where everyone is doing their part and working well together who say “We’re a great team and we love working together but we just can’t get anything done.”

Here’s a helpful distinction around the three key elements of group process. When groups get together, they are doing either one of three things. They are working on:

1. What: the group’s task, goal, or objective.

2. How: deciding on a process they will use to accomplish the task.

3. Who: assuring that individuals understand and are understood and have an opportunity to contribute to the group's task. A healthy group is conscious of these “affiliation” needs and interacts in ways, which support them.



How do we juggle “what,” “how,” and “who”?

In simple terms, a group should first define the task (what), then define the process (how) they are going to use to accomplish it. Once underway, they must manage the process so that relationships (who) remain healthy. This may sound easy, but it isn’t. It is truly hard work to juggle these aspects of a meeting. But it’s even harder when both the leader and participants are unconscious of these dimensions of group work and don’t effectively manage them. Have a look at this typical meeting dialogue to illustrate what I mean.

Acme Meeting Misery

A group from Acme, Incorporated, have agreed to meet to develop a new marketing strategy. A typical conversation might go something like this:

Bill: “Ok guys, looks like everyone’s here. What do you say we get started?”

Tom: “OK I’ll start. I just had an idea this morning for our marketing strategy. Why don’t we start a company newsletter to help us stay in better touch with our clients? We can use this to keep us in their awareness and also remind them of our various offers from time to time. What do you think?”

Sue: Sure that’s a great idea. We can start a newsletter database and have our assistant enter names of past customers in it for a start. Then start collecting names of new customers as they show up. Also, why don’t we look at advertising in other newsletters while we’re at it?

Joe: Hey, shouldn’t we look at our goals for the year first and talk about the best way to develop our strategy first?

Tom: Yeah Joe, but we all know what our goals are, let’s just get on with it and come up with some ideas.

Bill: Hey, why don’t we put interviews with our past customers in the newsletter too?

Sue: Great idea!

Joan: I’m not sure I understand this newsletter thing; can someone tell me how it works?


What do you notice about this conversation? Do you see where much of the discussion focuses on “task,” that is developing the content of a marketing strategy? A couple of people did chime in to suggest looking at “how” to approach the problem, that is they invited some discussion of the “process” to be used to accomplish the task. But during a “task” only discussion, which most of us are used to, it just doesn’t fit and is often ignored.

Do you see any problem with this approach?

Let me offer some observations. First, the group jumped right into solving the problem without clearly understanding the task. That is, what are the desired goals and outcomes of their marketing strategy? What problem will it solve? What purpose will it serve? When does it need to be done? Who are the best people to involve in its development?

The group didn’t discuss the “process,” or “how” they would go about accomplishing the task in the best way possible. Note that deciding on a process is even more difficult if the task is poorly defined. The process you use should support the pre-defined task.

Many meetings that aren’t well facilitated go on just like this one. They tend to focus only on the task at the expense of developing an approach that’s most effective for the task, and often at the expense of healthy relationships. This is not good for any group in the long run and will negatively impact the product they generate.

How do I Manage Task and Process?

  • Decide on “what” first. Remember the old adage, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there.” Encourage and help the group define their task first, noting that a clearly defined goal that everyone can get behind helps focus the group’s energy to arrive at the best possible product with the least resistance.

  • Decide on “how” second. After you have a clearly defined task, encourage your group to decide on their process for getting there. Agreeing how you are going to approach your task will again help minimize disagreements and wasted time.

  • Separate task and process discussions. Often discussions about task and process will have to be revisited during a meeting. This is OK but it’s very important to separate discussions around these two elements, clearly addressing them one at a time. Discussion about task and process at the same time is very common in meetings and leads to much confusion and frustration, particularly among those who don’t know the difference.

  • Encourage mutual respect. Whatever process is employed, take care to see that everyone is respected. Any aspect of the process that jeopardizes interpersonal relationships is not a healthy process and needs to be adjusted.

  • Juggling what, how, and who is not easy. Do what you can to help the meeting leader with this. If you notice mixed discussions between task and process, point this out and help the group focus on one at a time. If you notice people getting hurt by the process, interrupt the meeting to point this out and ask that it be addressed.

  • Make the Process the Task. Like Phil in our opening story, many groups stumble along repeating the same worn out approaches or living with dysfunctional processes. If this is the case in your group, suggest some meeting medicine by adding a Meeting Enhancement Discussion (MED) to the next agenda where the group can actually discuss and work to improve their ineffective processes


Where can you make the "process" the task in your groups? Where might the distinction between who, what, and how be useful to you right now? Let me know what you think. Just reply to this email and share your story, challenge, or perspective.


Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, by Sam Kaner, Lenny Lind, Catherine Toldi, Sarah Fisk, Duane Berger, Michael Doyle

I first found Sam Kaner's Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making after a lengthy search through countless books on facilitation techniques; it was like finding an oasis in the midst of a desert. It brought a sense of realism to the discussion I had been seeking. I shared it with my staff and we successfully applied many of its concepts and tools within an engineering environment more comfortable with solutions than with collaborative and sustainable agreements. The Gradients of Agreement template alone was worth the price of the book. The 2nd edition brings more information, strategies, tools and discussion within the same realistic, clear and immeasurably helpful format as found within the 1st edition. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to professional facilitators, supervisors, managers and team leaders; virtually anyone participating in or responsible for leading discussions with groups of people. --Marcia Aitken (Boise) --


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