by Steve Killian

When History Repeats Itself

It’s a frustratingly common sight across organizations of any size: another big change is afoot that will impact a broad swath of the company, whether it’s a new technology, initiative or strategy. Invariably, a small cadre of senior leaders have gathered in a conference room to hammer out their best plan forward—in splendid isolation.

Now, fast forward a few weeks or months and it is clear to everyone that things have gone sideways: Key opinion leaders are vocally not on board, there’s a general resistance that is hampering progress, and unexpected setbacks are appearing like cracks in a dam. Soon, a few senior leaders will quietly gather in a conference room to hammer out a new plan…again.

There comes a point where you have to try something different to earn enthusiastic buy in from engaged stakeholders willing to help move things forward.

That something different is conducting a large-scale collaborative working session.

Start with a Fresh Perspective

It’s amazing what can be accomplished in one day with all the right people working together, compared to multiple “one-off” meetings over weeks and months. In fact, a large-scale working session is one of the most effective ways to get immediate two-way information flowing, encourage rapid iteration with all the right people in the room, and increase stakeholder buy-in.

Yet there’s often a perception that doing work as a large group is somehow riskier. Or, conversely, that facilitating large-scale work is easy, with organizers simply doing what’s always been done—namely, volunteering a mid-level manager (or lower) to put together a retreat. Such a retreat predictably results in dry presentations and checked-out attendees. Worse yet, nothing really gets done.

Best Practices

Designing and leading effective large-group work is more difficult than many realize because doing it well requires flexing different organizational muscles. Above all, knowing when to engage your stakeholders in large-group collaborative work is key.

It’s safe to say that a day-long session is justified if you have an issue that’s complex, urgent, sponsored at the right level, and impacts a broad set of stakeholders. If your issue doesn’t pass this test, is it really a candidate for large-group work? Possibly not.

If it does pass this test, we recommend incorporating the following best practices into your preparation efforts:

  • Sponsors: Identify 2-3 top leaders to directly help prepare for the event. As a team, they must be willing to carve out time to carefully articulate the purpose (why you’re bringing everyone together) and objectives (the 2-4 things everyone is coming to do).
  • Facilitator: Be picky when choosing your facilitator because their level of skill and experience makes a material difference in stakeholder perception and event outcomes. The facilitator doesn’t need to understand specific content, but they must be skilled in designing and leading a productive day of work.
  • Participants: Day-long work requires the focused participation of all the right stakeholders in one room. Your goal is to include everyone that needs be involved in the work so follow-on meetings aren’t required (that defeats the point!). A major benefit of large-group work is that breakout teams can work different slices of an issue with full-group report backs for understanding and mid-course corrections.
  • Content: Most events are “sit-and-get” all day—so find ways to break this pattern as you actively design the working day to accomplish three things:
    • Share information to provide a common baseline of knowledge
    • Give participants an opportunity for meaningful input that is collected and used going forward
    • Have participants do something tangible to help move the effort forward (e.g., identify risks, prioritize dependencies, and create action plans)
  • Venue: Nothing kills group energy faster than a space that’s too small. Always reserve an extra-large, wide-open venue that gives you the flexibility to conduct individual, breakout, and full-group work throughout the day. This also allows catering and personal storage to be located inside the venue, keeping everyone visible, available, and involved.

Point B’s Perspective

We know that designing and facilitating large-group work is time consuming and difficult to do well. This fact inspired us to develop a practical solution we call F7 Working Sessions, “F7” for short. F7 combines proven methodology, process, and facilitation expertise to help clients navigate the seven foundational design principles upon which this methodology is based: Sponsorship, Purpose, Participants, Content, Methodology, Facilitation and Venue.

Our F7 approach includes:

  • Advance planning: Concise organization of the often overwhelming number of variables that must be managed for productive large-group work.
  • Stakeholder engagement: Nonlinear agenda design, adaptive venue layout, minimal use of technology, and multiple content iteration techniques to encourage engagement and contribution.
  • Custom-engineered breakouts: Rotated-membership breakout teams, task- and time-based assignments, and full-group facilitated report backs for improved collaboration and deeper understanding.
  • Actually doing work: Thoroughly engaging, no-nonsense collaborative work methods that produce results—no daylong “sit-and-get” slideshows.

With F7, the client remains responsible for all session pre-work and raw session output, leaving F7 event co-design and process rigor to the event facilitator. This approach encourages deeper content ownership and follow-through by the very people who will use it going forward.

The Bottom Line

Is getting to the wrong place fast—and without your key stakeholders behind you—really faster? Maybe the question isn’t should you, but rather how can you best involve your extended stakeholders to help move everyone forward faster, together?

Whether you go it alone or engage Point B to co-design and facilitate your next event, it’s worth the effort to find new ways to engage stakeholders early and often.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” — African Proverb