How to Facilitate a Working Group Meeting

Originally posted Mar 26, 2018

This is where the magic happens. After you’ve laid all the ground work for organizing a working group (define ground rules, choose and invite attendees, plan your agenda arc, and communicate broadly), here’s what to do when you finally get your participants in the room together.

Have a facilitator, and have a leader

Often it’s necessary to have the meeting leader not be the meeting facilitator. As a facilitator, my role is to move the group forward and ensure we’re achieving what we’re there to achieve.

In the example of the Architecture Principles Working Group at Meetup, I’m co-leading with a Principal Architect who is using his brain during the meeting to think more about the document we’re drafting. It’s still my job as facilitator to make sure the words aren’t catastrophically bad, because that wouldn’t further our meeting goal - but by separating those responsibilities, we can each do our respectives job more effectively.

As the facilitator, it’s okay if it feels awkward for you to take control of how the meeting is being run. It’s better to snap people out of their comfy ways (distractedly using Slack, not paying attention to where the mics are when speaking, derailing conversations with “but what do we mean when we say this word”). If you can keep in the front of your mind the goal of this meeting, you can do a gut-check with, “does this further our meeting goal?” If no, put a stop to it.

Have those ground rules be your muscle.

Constantly remind people of them at the top of every meeting. Curb behavior during the meeting that breaks a ground rule (it’s okay if this is awkward - it’s a muscle that’s often new for facilitators and for groups). I promise, it gets easier as the rules are enforced, because the group starts to remember them more and curb each other.

In addition to ground rules, you can (and should!) ask for patterns of behavior that make the meeting run more inclusively. For example, define remote facilitation hand signals for everyone (remote or in a room together) to use during the meetings, and stay on top of people adhering to them. More on facilitation methods and remote-friendliness here.

Be prepared for steamrollers.

Some folks are naturally interruptors, and are less effective at reading the room and knowing when they’re steamrolling someone else (or speaking such that others can’t get a word in edgewise). It’s critical that you, as the facilitator, curb this behavior. Here are two techniques I employ, in addition to the above “take control” tone:

Give everyone two poker chips/paperclips per meeting. They will “play” one when they want to speak in the room. They only get two - they won’t get any more, so they should use them wisely. And everyone must use them both before the end of the meeting. (This helps with the folks who are less likely to speak up, too!)

Force people to use hand signals to participate, even if everyone is in the room. Pointing at a person who is talking indicates that you want to add on to what they’re saying, or ask a followup question. Pointing up at the ceiling means you have a new point you’d like to add (or unrelated question). As facilitator, you call on those with their fingers pointed, and pause people who hop in without using hand signals. This means you can choose who speaks and in what order - creating more of a balance of who is getting to speak.

Literally ask the room how they’re feeling.

Take temperature checks in the room, and afterward, from participants. They’ll start to tell you the truth more candidly as they realize it’ll serve them.

Red/Yellow/Green can be a helpful tool if the topic you’re discussing is more emotional or vulnerable. I use this to start every manager roundtable, for example.

If I sense that something’s gone weird, that people are unusually tense or amygdala hijacked, I’ll acknowledge it transparently in the room. It’s so much better to name it than to try to ignore it. Sometimes you’ll want to close out the meeting and reconvene when people have had a break and time to think; sometimes you’ll be able to ask in the room what people want to do next to relieve the pressure. It’s totally okay to be transparent with what you’re noticing as the facilitator.

Be really obvious and transparent!

Using your mouthwords to express clearly and obviously what’s happening makes this whole process SO much easier. If you’re speaking plainly each step of the way, you can address pitfalls you see, blockers, etc. If you hand-wave, talk too high-level, or faciliate based on an assumption of a shared understanding of what you’re there to do, you may run into confusion as you facilitate.

For example, I didn’t get blunt enough when I wanted people to all collaborate in a document synchronously. I fixed this for the following meeting, literally writing on a slide, “Let’s hop over to the draft and everybody types in Suggestion mode!” Get into the practice of documenting and sharing as plainly as possible as you facilitate; it’ll pay dividends as the group moves forward to your goal!

Be prepared to detour from your agenda arc

You’ve got this beautiful plan for what you’re going to do in each meeting - it can feel scary to take a detour from it. But it’s important to be flexible; don’t allow meetings to go on infinitely, of course, if that’s not the plan, but do take a left turn if it’ll help you further the goal of your meeting.

In a recent Interview Process Working Group, I realized that I had started the group off with an interview prompt that just wasn’t going to work. I named my assumption in the room (obviously and transparently!) and asked if it was an incorrect one; the working group participants agreed that we were better off starting with a completely different foundational prompt. Note: we didn’t start from scratch; we just picked a brand new interview prompt to use as our foundation, and I’m updating the agendas and the homework for each meeting based on it.

This kind of enormous pivot can be scary for people - as facilitator, remind them that it’s in the service of your working group goal, and it’s totally okay to take a left turn! Better to catch it early and make a necessary fundamental shift than to try to keep aiming at the wrong target.

Use a variety of tools to move the group towards its goal

As facilitator, I’m aware of many tools at my disposal for moving our group towards its stated goal or deliverable:

Those are just a handful of the tools I think about when I’m figuring out what to do in a working group meeting. Last week, I invited in two principal architects to Meetup to share about the way they’ve run architecture reviews elsewhere. This week, I asked participants to use post-its in silent brainstorming mode, then we voted all together on which post-it ideas we would try out next. Nearly every week I’m screensharing documents (including prepped slide decks to run through an agenda) to keep everyone on the same page.

Don’t feel locked-in to doing the same thing every week; take a step back and figure out, when you’re in the room, what would really help us move forward as a group? What would help us get unblocked, get creative, get us less scared, get us deciding and acting? 50 minutes of open discussion every time probably won’t help further your cause; think about what’s in your toolbox and what could be useful at each new step.

Lara Hogan

I'm an engineering leadership coach and consultant. Previously VP of Engineering at Kickstarter, Engineering Director at Etsy.

I champion engineering management as a practice, getting comfortable giving presentations, and celebrating career achievements with donuts.