How to Help Advisory Boards Succeed
(from Maine Townsman, October 2010)
by Tom Taylor
Boards and committees are formed to perform a task or solve a problem and then are expected to go off and do their work. Unfortunately, like most groups, many meet and continue to meet with limited results.
The missing ingredient often is “good facilitation.” The goal of facilitation is to produce practical, fair products that all can be proud of. This article offers suggestions for achieving facilitation objectives, talks about who can facilitate and offers ideas for improving facilitation of your boards and committees.
The first step is shaping a mission that everyone can identify with. Often, elected officials or administrators give the committee a charge (and sometimes they don’t). The key is to hear from all members about their expectations and those of the groups they represent. It also helps to identify which expectations are in conflict.
This provides a basis for shaping a work plan and a schedule for addressing the priority issues. Too often, groups have one meeting after another with little understanding of the steps needed to get their job done. Similarly, agendas for each meeting need to be more than a list of topics. Meeting plans should include desired products, facilitation techniques to be used, background material and worksheets.
Many times, the chair or staff plan presentations based on their professional disciplines: law, business, science, etc. Long, irrelevant presentations discourage continuing participation. It is helpful to develop consensus on the priority questions to be answered, the information needed to answer the questions and whom to bring in as experts. This will greatly improve the quality of the presentation and the attention it receives.
It is important to remember that everyone has a piece of the truth and no one has all the truth. Committee members and others need to be able to ask questions and share insights. Different perspectives – expert and stakeholder – are critical for arriving at practical, creative solutions.
Adversarial sessions get the adrenaline going, which can shift the mental functioning from the rational to the reptilian “fight or flight” mode. A key role of facilitation is to engage the group in exploring possibilities instead of arguing over positions. Structured exercises and questions can quickly have an angry group creating lists, laughing and surprising themselves with what they come up with.
Majority voting at its best is simple and efficient. At its worst, it makes half the group “losers” who want to get back at the “winners” and who may not want to come back to a group that does not care about their concerns.
Reaching consensus may take a little longer but the dividends include better results, more commitment to implementation and improved relationships. Consensus does not mean everyone loves the outcome. It means that, at a minimum, they feel they have been heard and, therefore, will not block actions desired by the group. In some cases, nobody is too happy because everyone has had to give a lot to get an acceptable agreement. Ranking the acceptability of options on a scale of 1 to 5 or 1 to 3 allows the group to focus discussions on items on which agreement is possible. This avoids wasting time talking about issues on which there already is agreement, or on those on which agreement is unlikely.
GROUPS IN CONFLICT
We all have seen groups that spend endless hours arguing, or ones that avoid critical issues because they are controversial. Conflicts require different facilitation techniques from problem solving or consensus seeking. Like a mediator, the facilitator helps the parties understand each other’s needs and helps shape agreements that optimize their priority interests.
If members still are not able to resolve differences, they can agree on next steps that may include getting an expert opinion, or asking the commission or an administrator to make the decision. It is best to include these procedures in the instructions to the board or committee.
A NEED FOR ACTION
All talk and no action leaves everyone frustrated. Every recommendation should specify who is responsible, set deadlines and discuss resources. Without these practical necessities, people may be happy with the pleasing platitudes but implementation will be uncertain at best. If no answers are agreed upon, the group needs to specify tasks and responsibilities for gathering information, problem solving and getting commitments.
Good facilitation allows people to express their desires and uncertainties and feel accepted. Trust builds as people see each other as whole beings, rather than villains and victims. Allowing people to tell their stories, sort out commonalities and differences and seek mutually acceptable solutions builds lasting relationships and commitment to implementation. This level of commitment is stronger than what comes from voting by adversaries.
Good facilitation is a combination of art and science, learned skills and intuition. In most cases, the responsibility for facilitation falls to the chair or president. Sometimes there is a staff member or outside facilitator.
Having a neutral facilitator can pay big dividends. Often, it means the group can get much more done in less time and it allows the chair to contribute to the discussion. Anyone who understands good group process and facilitation techniques can ask the right questions and offer process suggestions that build shared understanding, solve problems and help reach consensus.
Facilitation skills are something we use every day, but most of us never get any instruction. The productivity of local government boards and committees could be doubled if chairs and staff could get training and support. Educational materials also can be provided.
Committee charges, charters and protocols can be written to encourage problem solving and consensus processes. Meeting and committee progress evaluations help achieve continuous improvement.
Advisory boards or committee chairs and members need to be informed advocates and to contribute to the group’s productivity. It is a challenge to do both. Facilitation training and written guidelines are important.
When possible, it pays to have a neutral facilitator. Efforts to assure good facilitation usually are repaid many times over in better-quality products, less time spent by members and staff, stronger commitment to implementation and improved relationships.
Dr. Tom Taylor was the associate director of the Florida Conflict Resolution Consortium for 20 years. He is now a private consultant and may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was reprinted with permission from the Florida League of Cities’
magazine, “Quality Cities.”