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The EA Virtual Program has an excellent training document for volunteer facilitators. I highly recommend it for anyone who expects to spend a lot of time running discussions, be they virtual or meatspace. To this growing repertoire, I add one underrated technique: delegation. 

Consider two common problems in facilitation: 

  1. Participants lose interest in the discussion, get sidetracked, or check out. 
  2. The facilitator gets overwhelmed and forgets something, and it explodes. [1]

What if we could solve both these problems at once? 

Too many hats

Here are some of the more important tasks of an unaided facilitator. 

Manage discussion. This is the primary job of a facilitator and the subject of most advice on the subject. It includes tracking things like: 

  • Are we staying on topic? 
  • Is everyone getting a chance to contribute? 
  • Is the discussion productive? 
  • Should we table this topic for a later time (or a smaller group)? 

This alone is often a full-time job. But it's only the beginning. A good facilitator must also: 

  • Track time. A calendar invite is a promise: for one hour of your time, we will have a valuable discussion on something you care about. One of the most common failure modes for a meeting is running over time. This isn't always a big deal; sometimes all your participants are highly engaged in a discussion, get consistent value and/or entertainment from it, and don't have any backend commitments. But the larger a meeting, the less likely it is that these conditions obtain, and the more important it becomes to respect your participants' time
  • Take notes. Track what's been said. Main ideas; points and counterpoints; valuable tools and viable paths. Publish a clear and legible summary after the meeting. 
  • Track follow-ups. The magic phrase is: "Who will do what by when?"
  • Iterate and improve. Solicit, receive, sort, and implement feedback. Make incremental changes. Depending on the meeting, one might even offer feedback to participants. Especially important for recurring meetings. 

This is a lot for one person to manage. Even highly experienced facilitators typically drop the ball on something; I've seen it happen a dozen times. 

If only there were some way we could do all these things at once! 

Well, I have good news: we can. It's time to call in... 

The M Team

This section owes thanks to Toastmasters International, whose concept of meeting roles I have shamelessly appropriated. 

The Timer

Calm. Collected. Punctual. Wears a monocle and carries a fancy pocketwatch on a gold chain. Has one job and does it well. 

Protect participants' time

The Timer is not forceful, insistent, or demanding. They do not need to be, because when they whisper, you listen. Their domain is the gentle nudge. They claim your attention with a mere two words. Five minutes. Your time is almost up; take heed. 

Role: Watch the schedule and the clock. Gently but firmly indicate to the facilitator (and/or speaker) when a timed segment is ending. [2]

The Archivist

Some are meticulous, fastidious, detail-driven. Others are hands-on, swashbuckling, quick-and-dirty. But they all share one thing in common: nothing of consequence escapes their notice. In the award-winning TV drama inspired by your work, they are the one who knows things. And in the final act, when your back's to the wall, it will be they who reminds you what you're here to accomplish, and how far you've come since the beginning. 

Role: Write down key points and follow-ups. They don't actually need to track every word, just the main topics and insights discussed. Optionally, clean up and share the notes with the group after the event. [3]

The Evaluator

In a courtroom drama, they are Judge and Jury. In a survival epic, they are merciless Mother Nature. In the arts drama, they are the Critics. They are the First and the Last, the Rose and the Thorn, the Yin and the Yang. They are the Karma, the Kaizen, the Sixth Sigma. They are Judgment Day. When they arrive, will you be ready? 

Role: Throughout the meeting, notice what's going well or poorly. Make a note. Tell the facilitator at the end. [4]

Secret Bonus Role: Also provide feedback to keynote speakers, presenters, debaters, and/or organizers. 

Secret Bonus Role #2: Pay attention in the next meeting. Were past suggestions implemented? What seems hardest to improve? 

You don't have to go it alone

Why delegate? 

Running a meeting includes a lot of small tasks. Each one is easy, but juggling them all can be hard for even the most experienced facilitator to manage. Especially if, like me, you're the sort of person who gets very very focused on one thing at a time. Delegating some of these small tasks to participants can make your job easier. 

"But Joe," I hear you say, "that would be selfish of me! I don't want to presume..."

Hogwash, I tell you. Hogwash

Firstly, many people actually benefit from having a minor role in a meeting. It helps keep them focused and involved even when they're not talking, and it makes them feel useful - not in any manipulative way, but because they are being useful. 

Secondly, your primary obligation as a facilitator is to help the participants accomplish their goals. This means giving them a smooth discussion with minimal distractions, interruptions, or errors. If you can't simultaneously juggle four or five distinct roles to perfection - and I assure you that you can't - then you should be willing to recruit participants to assist. It's their meeting, after all. 

Thirdly, you'll often find that many people are delighted to volunteer for a meeting role. 

And finally, you don't need anyone's permission to do your job. If they didn't want you making decisions about how their meeting is run, they wouldn't have asked you to facilitate in the first place. 

What are the downsides of delegating? 

  • Not everyone knows how to take good notes, especially on technical topics. [5] 
  • Sometimes people drop the ball. 
  • It might distract participants from the discussion at hand. 
  • You're still ultimately responsible for making sure the meeting goes well. 

So when should I delegate tasks? 

  • You have enough participants to justify splitting duties (typically 4 or more). 
  • You are willing to trust your participants with at least one of the above tasks. [6]
  • Your participants either volunteer for roles or agree that role assignments are part of the meeting. 
  • You aren't assigning roles to keynote speakers or others who already have significant duties, e.g. a Master of Ceremonies or The One Who Fixes PowerPoint. 

Especially delegate if you plan to actively contribute to the discussion, rather than acting only as a guide. 

How do I delegate well?

First, make sure your prep work is done (a subject for another post). Then explain the system to your participants. Link this post if you'd like. 

Either ask for volunteers or announce how you'll be assigning roles. If you do the second thing, make sure everyone is OK with the idea before announcing specific assignments. 

Finally, look for ways to adapt these roles to your needs. Maybe you are teaching people speaking skills and want multiple Evaluators, maybe you need a dedicated specialist on call for IT problems, maybe you want to split roles for a particularly long meeting. You may even want to offload some pre- or post-meeting work if your facilitation load is unusually high. Meeting roles and prep work are both good ways for budding facilitators to practice. 

Whatever your needs, if you find yourself dedicating a lot of your time to a particularly demanding task, it may be worth delegating. 

Therefore, spaketh Joe, go forth and delegate. 

  1. ^

    For example, the meeting runs over time and someone has to leave. 

  2. ^

    If they want to cheat, they can set an actual timer for 5 minutes before the segment ends. 

  3. ^

    The facilitator could do this bit instead. 

  4. ^

    This part can be public or private. For small meetings, it may be helpful to solicit feedback from everyone at the end. For large meetings, skip it and talk meta in private. 

  5. ^

    But they can get better with practice. 

  6. ^

    If you can't, then you probably shouldn't work together in the first place. 





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