Improving Long Tech Events: #3 Priority

#3 Priority; Effective Event Facilitation

Is effective facilitation important?

facilitationIn the article “The Role of a Facilitator” the author says, “good facilitation can make the difference between success and failure.”

Although I positioned effective event facilitation as the #3 priority for making long tech events more successful, the need for better facilitation is dependent on the event.

Event facilitation is unlikely to be a glaring problem area for traditional conferences organized by an event management company or long-running tech events which have a seasoned core team of organizers and a proven recipe for success. However, participant-driven events, especially if a first-of-a-kind event or if led by a first-time team or a core team with too few members, have a tendency to have one or several avoidable glitches in the event. Lack of skilled facilitation can result in issues that make the event less enjoyable or worthwhile, or maybe even problems that cause people to leave the event or publicly voice their negative opinions.

Open Space Technology Events

open space technology

Open Space Technology Event

Unconferences using the Open Space Technology (OST) process , or some participant-driven derivative of OST, to manage the gathering are especially likely to need improved event facilitation. Because many (most?) people at OST events are unfamiliar with the process, the lack of one or more facilitators skilled in OST techniques can cause rough starts at that style of unconference.


Session leaders at OST events who give traditional-conference PowerPoint one-to-many presentations may eliminate much of what was potentially the most valuable part of their session — insightful contributions from the other participants in the session and the opportunity for a highly engaging and informative group discussion on the session topic. Unconference participants who don’t understand that they need to be active “participants” rather than passive “attendees” may be disappointed with the lack of structure or or may feel uncomfortable about using the Law of Two Feet, consequently remaining seated in a session that’s not a good fit for their interests rather than moving to a different session where they can learn or contribute. Or they may fail to initiate an impromptu small group session when they connect with a group of other participants (whom they are unlikely to meet face-to-face again in the near future) who have very closely aligned passions and areas of expertise.

When I read blog posts slamming unconferences as a waste of the author’s time, I first think of effectively managing expectations, the #1 priority for improving long tech events. The organizers of the time-wasting unconference may not have done an adequate job of communicating what an unconference is and how it is run. Expectations for an unconference are crucial for both session leaders and for session participants. For both session leaders and participants, lack of understanding of their roles and the goal of sessions to be guided conversations, exploring a topic of high interest to everyone in the session, will generally lead to an unsatisfying experience.

My next thought is that possibly the organizers managed expectations well, but the event facilitation was less skilled than it needed to be. My experience has been that most unconference “facilitators” have not been trained in, and do not have much experience with, the OST process. They may be good facilitators for corporate meetings who have minimal familiarity with OST, or they may just be someone with little, if any, experience facilitating meetings or large events who has read about OST on the internet.It’s improbable that a typical tech geek excited about hanging out with a bunch of other geeks who also have less-than-optimal social skills will be a highly effective first-time facilitator for an unconference.

Because the facilitator has huge impact on the success of a true unconference, it’s my goal to get an experienced and effective OST facilitator at every unconference in which I’m involved as an events wrangler. If it’s not possible to arrange for that hard-to-find facilitator, my fallback position is to find a skilled facilitator who will take the time to research and understand OST

Good Start And Facilitation Issues

good startThe opening session of an unconference or hackathon is “spotlight” time for the facilitator. Because many participants may be unsure of how the event will be run, or will have misconceptions based on differently-run events they’ve been at, the facilitator needs to do an outstanding job of:

  1. Setting the stage for a successful event
  2. Covering the ground rules (then, later, making sure they’re followed)
  3. Explaining how the day or days will unfold
  4. Clarifying what each person’s role is
  5. Identifying who to contact if you have questions or need help
  6. Helping everyone look forward to enjoying and being part of the rest of the event

For any long tech event, it’s important to gracefully work through the inevitable challenges that pop up, while also being alert and quick-acting so they prevent avoidable issues from happening. The most important trait of this troubleshooting duty is to be able to spot the bumps in the road as you’re approaching them, rather than trying to fix things after you hit the bump. Be on the lookout for disturbances in the force or a tear in the Matrix, then adjust accordingly to head off annoyances or major problems.

The facilitator should be talking with people during the event to find out what is going well and where changes or adjustments are needed. They also need to have the rest of the event team listening for that type of feedback.

code of conductBe especially aware of Code of Conduct issues. There should be a designated point of contact for the event’s Code of Conduct, other than the lead facilitator, but because the facilitator is soliciting feedback and has their finger on the pulse of the event, they may notice inappropriate behavior as it first pops up. Get the designated Code of Conduct person involved right away and keep the event safe and enjoyable for everyone.

Look for and take advantage of opportunities to foster excitement and enable more engagement for participants. If someone is looking confused or bored, find out why. Maybe you can connect them with someone at the event who has similar specific interests, or possibly you can help them figure out an aspect of the event that’s unclear. Maybe they have a problem unrelated to the conference. By taking the time to listen to them, you may be able to help them out, maybe even help them resolve their problem so they can once again enjoy the event.

The facilitator needs to monitor the flow of the event, and minimize distractions, heading off any major kerfluffles that threaten to negatively impact a large number of people or the whole event. They should keep the agenda on schedule, with reasonable accommodations that make sense for specific events or sessions. If one or a couple sessions are running over schedule but continuing the sessions is felt to have high value, help find a different session area for that group that was planning to use the over-schedule session area.

See The Big Picture

In addition to being the person responsible for the #3 priority on my list for having highly successful long tech events, the facilitator needs to be aware of issues related to #4 through #13 priorities on that list. If some aspects of those lower priorities are being neglected or inappropriately handled, the facilitator must address that situation with the person or people responsible for that topic.

big pictureFacilitator should both be mindful of significant event situations as they are occurring and should be taking a 30,000 foot view of the event and be thinking about what’s important to a successful wrap-up and what future actions should result from the event. They need to either keep track of commitments made and follow-up items generated during the event or appoint someone else to handle that responsibility.

The above discussion about effective event facilitation is summed up nicely in the post “Mastering Facilitation for Improved Results.”

“…Many business professionals know the meaning of facilitation, but few are skilled at performing the duties of a facilitator or appreciate the true benefits of a process, project or important event that is masterfully facilitated…”

A first-time facilitator could be overwhelmed by all the things that must be done in order to be able to say an event was a resounding success that makes everyone want to be a part of the next event managed by that facilitator. That’s why it is so important for the lead facilitator to:

  1. Understand what goes into making an event successful
  2. Have experience helping plan and run events before they lead one
  3. Have an appropriate-size core team with all the necessary skills and commitment
  4. Prepare well for the event
  5. Delegate responsibility so they have time to deal with the most important issues
  6. Enjoy the event and the opportunity to be a key player in making it successful
  7. Learn from each event experience to make the next one better

May all your events have effective facilitators!


Posts in this “Improving Long Tech Events” series:

Making Long Tech Events Better
Improving Long Tech Events: Priorities
Improving Long Tech Events: #1 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #2 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #3 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #4 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #5 Priority
#6 Priority: Follow-Up For Greater Impact
Priority #7: Storytelling & Documentation
Improving Long Tech Events: Priorities #8 – #13


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