Friday, March 23, 2012

Going Large: Tips for Running Big Conference Facilitation Teams

Last week we were facilitating at a major environmental conference in France with 16,000 people. We had been working with the Secretariat Team for 2 years throughout the preparatory process to help shape the agenda, work with the governance team, contribute ideas to the design and help facilitate stakeholder input to the overall process. All of these preparatory events had from 40 to 400 people, frequently all in the room at the same time.

And it all culminated last week in the final week-long conference which featured hundreds of events, many in parallel (often 30 at a time), and an offer to the different organizations hosting conference sessions for facilitation support.

Our Facilitation Team of 6 Facilitators was international (with multiple language skills) and during the week we facilitated, or supported as facilitators, 63 sessions ranging from 5 people to 2000.

In between these events - which made up over 141 person hours of facilitation - we were everywhere in the venue doing everything else - we met our session leads and their teams, held multiple preparatory meetings, briefed panelists and speakers, made flipcharts and group work templates, found materials hidden in boxes under tables, checked rooms, sweet-talked "volunteers" and technical staff, tested microphones, and more...

This is the second mega-conference (not counting all the ones from 200-500 people) where I have had a Coordinator role for a Facilitation Team. It is interesting to think about what makes these kinds of Facilitation Teams work best, as there are lots of unknowns, the environment is constantly shifting and changing, and often the Facilitation team - which is usually a distributed team with regional and language diversity in our cases- has not previously worked together. Here are some things that seemed to help us have a positive experience and impact last week:

1) Share Schedule Overview

Everyone had a completely different schedule, and although for some sessions we paired up, the pairs were almost always different. So having one shared schedule that showed everyone's activities helped us understand each other's commitments each day (each hour even) and get a sense of where the Facilitators were and who could help out or pinch hit if need be. This schedule took the form of a matrix with all of our names in rows, and the days of the events in columns. Each person also had their systems too, but that was what we shared.

2) Communication - Set-Up and Tools

On our first day (even before in my case) we took everyone's cell phone number and put it in our smart phones (everyone had one). As we were almost always in wifi zones (although there were different passwords in different parts of the conference venue which was annoying), we signed up for WhatsApp and used that for free, or SMS when that was not possible. That was the main way we kept in touch throughout the week. We only rarely phoned as we were so frequently in meetings, sessions etc. Our smart phones helped us get last minute emails from our session leads (clients), as there were many last minute changes, and also helped us forward documents to the central printing facility.

3) Pick a Homebase

We needed to have a homebase for the team in the Conference venue where we spent our whole day (it wasn't easy to get in and out of security quickly - you could get stuck for 45 minutes in line at the metal detectors), so we used a central space inside called The Agora - a large tent with a cafe, bistro tables and chairs, and lots of flipcharts - which is where we had a number of our sessions. There was a backroom there where the conference technical team let us store our bags securely and where they had drinks and snacks for staff, as well as the supplies. When we were done with our different events during the day, we would meet back there quite naturally and sit down at one of the bistro tables (often with one of our team facilitating a session on the stage beside), have a coffee and talk through what happened. By the end of the day the coffee would turn to a glass of wine and a review of that day and the next. It was so important to have that central place to meet and also to relax and regroup after high pressure and often very politically sensitive sessions.

4) Hold Breakfast Meetings

Every morning we met at 07:30 together for a meeting to discuss our schedule, any changes, any help we needed, and most importantly any relevant information we were getting. In these huge events, information comes in from all sides, through the organizers, through email, through our session partners, so this meeting was a way to get everyone there to share what was going on that was relevant to people like us who needed to move quickly and nimbly through the jungle of events, delegations, and the extended organizing team. Sometimes this was fun information - like the time of the Mexican evening reception in the Exhibition space - sometimes this was about one of the security gates being closed or needing a second, special electronic badge to get into the opening session because Heads of State were attending. (We also tended to eat dinner together each night if possible, but those weren't "meetings", more like wonderful getting-to-know-you opportunities.)

Finally, and most importantly...

5) Find Great Facilitators

This is probably the most important ingredient in running a Facilitation Team at a mega-Conference. You need Facilitators who both master and can use their facilitation tools flexibly. Because weird things happen at mega-conferences:
  • You don't know the group size in advance, even in a room of 400 people, you might get 50 or standing room only. So you need to be able to scale up or down your design on the spot;

  • You might not know who is actually "in charge" of your session. Because many of the sessions are co-hosted, you might be dealing in the design phase with a young staff member from one organization, and then onsite, senior managers come in with their advice and desires, so you need to be ready to change, or hold your ground, in the hours (or even minutes) before your event starts;

  • You can't see the space in advance. At least before you get there, and once you are there you can look, but at that point the design can be rather fixed. We received information about the seat set up, and whether we could put things like flipcharts on the walls in advance, which was helpful, and we had to trust that this would be the case.

  • You can't depend on having set up time before your session. Each event had ostensibly 30 minutes between scheduled sessions. However, most sessions ran over (not ours of course!) which meant that we might only have 10 or 15 minutes to set up the room - and this could include cleaning up after the previous group, and rewriting the nameplates because so many speakers changed at the last minute. So we had to have everything made, sorted, and folded in advance and ready to pop up on the walls, or put on the tables, or hand out. 

  • You have to be able to deal with high emotions. In a conference of 16,000 and so many events, both your session organizers and your participants have been on the go non-stop from morning to night. They are tired, they might feel exposed, they might be outside their comfort zone (we saw some of that as most people were technical people who all of a sudden are on stage in front of hundreds of people talking about their work). So there is quite a lot of bedside manner needed in events like these, and sometimes it is just a matter of gently adopting a take-charge attitude and getting things done for your session host teams who are effectively working together for the first time, and doing something (organizing a conference session) which they only do once every three years. Not to mention the fact that you (the Facilitator) are asking many of them to steer away from their safe, comfortable, default format of Panel of 13 speakers followed by 10 minutes of Q&A with an audience of 200 people.
All in all, our feedback from our session hosts was really excellent, and it is still coming in. We worked well together, we laughed alot, things within our control went more or less smoothly, and our session host teams were satisfied. And we learned a great deal about how to support and make more interactive these mega-conferences.

It is hard and can be exhausting, but the engagement you can foster from facilitating large groups to more granular outcomes can be both surprising and pleasing for participants, who report that they get even more from facilitated sessions - more engagement, more networking, and more learning (and even some ideas on facilitation that they can take home and use themselves) - spreading facilitation far beyond the walls of that enormous conference centre after the mega-event.


cuauhtemoc leon said...

Dear Gillian, along with the need of adapting and being flexible yourself as facilitator, you are challenge by the changing environment, being with someone else in this case being in pairs (2 facilitators), helped a lot, I learnt from my colleagues not only new techniques and tools or ways to manage a session, but how to face with the same tool different size of groups (ranging from 1-15 for instance). In that way, we were also "controlling" our own emotions and expectations

Raj Rana said...

Hi Gillian- the strength of the team was the real keystone in the Forum experience. In addition to learning from peers and seeing how others adapted their approaches, it was invaluable to have a sounding-board at the end of the day. There was a reassurance in hearing that your peers were facing similar success/frustration- and hearing how they were coping with challenges and seizing opportunities with their sessions and clients. The investment that you made in planning can't be overlooked in all of this- the team functioned well as a result of knowing 'where to be and what to do'!

Michael Randel said...

It also seems to be that this was one of those situations in which detailed preparation pays off - knowing precisely what you planned to do, and how you would accomplish this, paradoxically gives you great flexibility.

Because of course, we never meet the reality that we imagined during our planning work. I find that the detailed planning, with a focus on clear outcomes, gives you the latitude to make adjustments that address the reality you encounter. Whether this is a room that is set-up differently from what you requested, or a session that runs long, or even far more/far fewer participants than you were expecting, you can make adjustments with great ease, because you are clear on your intent...

Gillian Martin Mehers said...

Wow, great additions from all of you dear Facilitation Team members! Cuauhtemoc, indeed working in pairs was a great way to do peer learning, and also give us support and an extra brain and pair of hands for changing things on the spot.

Raj, It's great to hear that the planning came in handy - as Michael says, preparation can pay off when you know where you want to go. And it was indeed good to have friends to share a glass of wine and tell war stories of the day.

And Michael, you are right that having a clear view of objectives helps our tools be a means to an end and replace-able/adaptable when the need arises (even when it is in the moment).

All terrific comments and what a team!! Thanks to you all!

Gillian Martin Mehers said...

I just read a post-event Press Release that stated that not 16,000, but 35,000 people attended the event!

Penny Walker said...

Wow, I could feel my palms beginning to sweat as I read this blog!

A great and reassuring resource - thanks for sharing.

Gillian Martin Mehers said...

Hi Penny, These kinds of events can definitely get your heart racing, but a great team on board will see you through!