NO STRATEGY HAPPENS WITHOUT PEOPLE. I’LL GET YOURS WHERE THEY NEED TO BE.

A few years back, I was sitting in a hotel lobby in Rwanda with a group of design professionals from all over the world. The problem they were working on was a weighty one: how to redesign genocide memorials to make future atrocities less likely. Yet as we talked, I was thinking to myself, “It always comes back to this: a group of people in a room, talking through a problem. And I’m going to get them there.”

I’ve done this kind of work since 2010. It’s happened in all kinds of rooms with all kinds of people. Sometimes it’s called facilitation. Sometimes it’s called teaching. Sometimes it’s just called a meeting. I know how to make it work — though I’ll confess I never know exactly what to call the skill set that makes it work.

But I do know this — what makes or breaks any meeting is whether it serves a larger strategy. And no strategy happens without people. While in some situations I might look like a teacher and in others I might look like a moderator, in my head I am always asking myself, “How do we get these people closer to making the strategy happen?”

Or to put it more succinctly, I am obsessed with the question, “How can I make sure this meeting isn’t pointless?”

If that sounds like what you’re looking for, here’s what you need to know.

How I Got Here – For five years, I was a principal of an organization called Insight Labs. The core offering of the Labs was three-hour intensive meetings that helped nonprofits, governments, and companies resolve questions of strategy. Put another way, we got organizations un-stuck.

By the time an organization called us, they had usually already consulted all the experts. So we put together rooms full of interesting, creative people who had never worked on their particular problem before. I helped plan and execute about 60 of these unique gatherings. Our partners include lots of organizations you’ve heard of: NASA, the U.S. State Department, TED, the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Starbucks, and many more.

Since those days, I’ve fielded many requests to translate the magic of those meetings into other formats, including workshops, retreats, trainings, etc. Sometimes these engagements draw upon curricula I developed to supplement the Labs, including training in social change strategy and design thinking. Other times, the client needs help fitting this kind of intensive meeting or workshop into a larger plan. But no matter the scope of the engagement, I go for that same core feeling that the meeting helps the group get “un-stuck.”

When talking with clients about how to realize this result, I think about three phases:

Before the Event – Of course, the most important thing to do before the meeting is develop a clear idea of what it should accomplish. While I wasn’t the lead facilitator of Insight Labs (that was my friend Jeff Leitner) I played a key role in this pre-event strategizing. Most of the time, the key task was helping our partners see that they could emerge from a meeting with major insights none of us had when we went in. The trick is charting a path to these insights without deciding in advance what they should be.

As a strategic consultant, I draw upon this expertise to help clients even when we are discussing an event I won’t actually attend, like a board retreat. But more frequently, this phase involves rapidly comprehending a client’s strategy, then translating it into decisions like who should participate, what they should learn or discuss, and what expectations for follow-up action should be. I also frequently generate original research or curricula before these events to maximize the value of the time we spend together.

The Event Itself – After Insight Labs, I spent a few years as a faculty member with the University of Southern California, teaching courses in design thinking and program development. At the start of each semester, I told my students that I view teaching as an act of love, and that each of them had a right to expect caring and kindness from me. A little corny? Sure. But I felt like throwing out that lifeline early on helped students feel safe confronting difficult issues and taking transformative risks.

I try to bring this same sense of care to any group I work with, whether I’m facilitating a discussion teaching a complex topic. This ethos of care has helped me get through difficult situations when discussions took an unexpected direction or got surprisingly heated. But more practically, a spirit of empathy helps me imagine an experience from the point of view of the participants and discern what they are ready to do — or what might require a little more preparation.

So if the event is a small gathering of leaders who are already familiar with each other’s perspectives, we should skip the small talk and get to the questions that will help us transcend what we already know. But if the group is a larger team who will be working together for a long time, we may want to spend time going through some training experiences together to give everyone a shared set of tools and expectations. All these decisions proceed from a spirit of care for the people involved — combined with a heck of a lot of experience.

After the Event – This is the phase where most facilitation fails. Everyone feels like they had a magical experience at the workshop or the retreat, but what difference does it make in the life of the organization?

My preferred approach to this problem is producing a definitive document that captures the results of the meeting, combines it with prior knowledge and insights, then sketches out possibilities for what comes next. Especially when such documents are shared, they can help participants continue to gain value from their experience and translate insights from the meeting into new innovations. That being said, there are also times when the right solution is a discreet phone call among a few participants.

Whatever the next steps, I do not feel satisfied with a meeting or training event unless my client has a sense of what strategic goals can be accomplished by the end that weren’t possible at the beginning. So I always go into an event with a plan for translating the proceedings into some sort of action, whether that’s a 100-page volume or a few quick decisions.

Sounds great. But can you do it over Zoom?

Sure. All my teaching with USC was done online, and I’ve used those skills to create many other successful virtual engagements.

While we have all missed seeing each other in person during the pandemic, I actually think organizations are becoming much more creative and flexible with what they can do with meetings when they do not need to take the form of conferences, retreats, and other pre-pandemic formats. If you are worried about how you can make that happen, contact me and we can think about it together.

The best way to reach me is to e-mail andrew@albnelson.com. Once I understand your organization’s strategy a bit better, I’ll send you some materials from previous events I’ve run to illustrate what we can do together.

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