Facilitating Technical Workshops: 5 Steps to ‘Getting It Right’

How do you ensure a technical workshop is successful, with rich discussion, extensive information sharing, and clear, focused, practical outcomes? How do you avoid a muddled conversation that leaves everyone better informed but without any sense of progress or direction?

Over the years, CBI has helped plan and facilitate technical workshops on a host of issues. We’ve covered topics ranging from the water quality impacts of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to population modeling and monitoring of bat populations affected by white nose syndrome. Though the topics, disciplines, and participants have been diverse, we believe we’ve learned a great deal about best practices through practice, trial, and error. Here is our advice.

Getting the Questions Right
One should never ignore the adage of many a scientist:  when asked, “What’s the answer?” — most good scientists respond, “It depends on the question.”

Like many groups, a gathering of technical experts can happily debate any number of topics from morning until night, engage in rich discussion, and have some fun doing it. However, generally groups cannot make genuine progress unless they have their conversation framed or directed in some way. Before anyone even steps into the room, it’s extremely valuable to frame the key questions the participants are being asked to answer (otherwise, you’ll spend a fair amount of time in the room doing this exercise anyway).

If, for example, the question is: does land application of treated sewage sludge increase public health risks? Then participants are going to spend a great deal of time teasing out this deceptively simple question, and may become polarized around the issue based on previous belief or experience.

If the question is: what are methods and techniques that can be used to determine if treated sewage sludge leads to increased public health risk? Then the participants will focus most on methods, and less on an answer to the broader question.

Both questions are legitimate, but they are likely to lead to very different discussions.

At CBI, we find it valuable to have a small planning committee spend some time before the meeting, usually via phone, framing up the questions and the agenda, and debating and revising the approach, until it feels honed, focused, and concrete. This planning takes time, and can often be frustrating as the planning group rehashes issues, circles back to earlier approaches, and is cautious about providing too much direction until everyone gets in the room. But we find this up front work is critical to a dialogue’s success and worth the effort. Ideally, question framing should include the policy makers who will be receiving the technical data developed so that they can help ensure the work undertaken will be usable in policymaking, and the stakeholders who are going to weigh in on and judge the legitimacy of the work at some point.

Getting the Invitees Right
The conversation’s quality will only be as good as the quality of the participants.

“Quality” of participants can relate to a variety of factors such as academic or technical excellence, communication skills, force and type of personality, reputation and seniority, technical or scientific discipline, and ability to engage collaboratively. When inviting participants, it’s important to not only get all the right “knowledge” in the room, but also the kinds of participants who will be active, engaged, hard working, and challenging but respectful. There’s nothing like a forceful personality with an overly strong attachment to one view, technique, or method to potentially drive an otherwise productive conversation off the cliff. Close mindedness is hardly a trait shared only by the general public and lay-people.

It is also essential to ensure that the right kinds of knowledge are in the room, given the questions framed in advance. There’s nothing more frustrating than a group finding itself halfway through a discussion only to realize that they cannot answer the questions, or even understand the problem sufficiently, without a certain kind of statistician or modeler in the room. It is the facilitator’s job to review the invitation list with the convener or planning group, even if most people are already invited. The facilitator should ask questions such as:

  • What methodological expertise do the different people bring?
  • Does anyone have a reputation for collaboration or conflict?
  • What kinds of knowledge or expertise might we be missing?
  • Are there key institutions (e.g. certain sectors or organizations) that have funding, implementation ability, or resources that might be missing?

Another important consideration is the role of informed stakeholders. Are only experts across agencies invited to participate? Or, should the workshop be informed by stakeholder expertise? If so, how does one represent a range of views across stakeholder groups? In technical workshops, one does not have to worry about the exact “balance” of participation, as in a decision-making process. However, if stakeholder experts and their advice are desired, one must work to include a range of views and participants who are capable of bringing sector knowledge without being overly dogmatic or positional.

Getting the Information Right
There are three commonly used methods to convey information in technical workshops: in advance via handouts or links to online materials; via technical presentations; and via dialogue.

1) Gather and provide useful information ahead of time. In many processes we dissuade conveners from providing too much information beforehand. We’re often skeptical that busy participants will take much time to prepare for an event. In many cases, summaries, overviews, and fact sheets are more valuable than detailed reports, papers, and the like. In certain technical settings, however, the participants will actually read materials ahead of time. In these settings, it’s helpful to provide information at various levels of detail. Usually, this means providing an overview or summary piece; a longer synthesis piece on the topic if available; as well as specific bibliographies, articles, and white papers, often conveniently downloadable via an FTP site. One can also use web-based surveys such as Zoomerang to poll attendees on key issues, objectives or ideas, and then consolidate that survey data to help focus the agenda, frame issues or questions, and illuminate the range of issues prior to the actual event.

2) Make presentations brief and informative. First, if there’s general information that can be shared, it’s often best done ahead of time, for example in a one-hour preparation webinar. Providing background and shared information in advance can get people engaged and thinking about the topic before arriving at the workshop, and prepare them to quickly dive in and spend time in dialogue during the face-to-face meeting.

Technical presentations at workshops pose a conundrum. Technical workshops seek to achieve concrete outcomes like research agendas, technical conclusions about methods, data, or analysis. Such workshops are not academic conferences with the intent of sharing information and learning among participants. However, even technical groups with a fair amount of prior interaction need to have a shared body of knowledge in order to have an informed conversation on the same topic. Furthermore, a great deal of technical information is best conveyed in charts, graphs, tables, and non-narrative means.

Although as facilitators we sometimes find ourselves with the urge to discourage slideshows and formal presentations, at CBI we have developed ways to utilize presentations to both enrich and focus the conversation. For example, in a series of four workshops on the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, each workshop was organized around a series of panels on a workshop subtopic. Presenters were selected based on diversity of affiliation and knowledge. We included up to four panelists per panel, but limited presentations to 7 to 8 minutes each. We let panelists know time limits in advance, reviewed slides beforehand, sent back slides that were too long, and literally kept time with a stop watch (time enforcement is most important in the first hour of any event). As a result, we were able to cover an enormous amount of information — on topics from well construction to fracturing fluid composition — and to have rich discussion through a systematic, highly structured, and well-enforced format. However, in other workshops, we have found that this kind of formality can overly restrict free-flowing dialogue and also prevent participants from delving deeper into issues. In this case, lead discussants with short presentations, particularly early in the workshop, can help set the stage for later, more collaborative work.

3) Dialogue is the meat and potatoes of face-to-face technical workshops.
In many cases, dialogue, questions, and comments across a range of expertise and disciplines provide the primary paths to insight, new understanding, integration of ideas, and emerging consensus. In some sense, getting the first two information methods right merely sets the stage for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of technical dialogue — the core value of workshops. In our experience, effective dialogue has to be focused and structured enough to achieve progress, while informal and open ended enough to allow meanderings and unexpected insights to emerge from conversation. There is a range of discussion formats, from panels to full group to breakout groups, which can be effective. Over the years, we have generated a few rules of thumb for structuring dialogue:

  • Groups like time to explore, meander, and muddle through a topic as a whole. While the facilitator may be tempted to split into breakout groups early, such a format can often truncate the questioning and greater clarity that comes from full group discussion.
  • Unless the facilitator is a technical expert herself, it is difficult to produce specific, focused work — such as a detailed description of a vital rates study needed for little brown bats.
  • Groups of 4 to 7 can get concrete, specific technical work done. Thus, breaking the large group into sufficiently small sub-groups is essential to accomplish detailed work, if that is the goal.

Getting the Facilitation Right
In technical workshops, the facilitator is rarely the smartest guy or gal in the room.

In fact, the facilitator is likely to have the least technical knowledge and expertise. So, should conveners even bother with facilitation? Maybe technical workshops just need good process design? We think yes to the first and no to the second, but only if the facilitator is highly practiced in this kind of work. Here are a few key lessons we have learned in facilitating technical efforts:

1) The facilitator must be able to keep up. Technical and scientific participants are willing to educate the facilitator to a point, but they have little patience in waiting for the facilitator to catch up, or worse, watching them become completely lost. The facilitator must be versed in the topic or at least the broader field (say, conservation biology versus the life-cycle of the lesser prairie chicken). Facilitators need a solid understanding of the process of scientific research, the role of various agencies, and the role of data collection, monitoring, analysis, and modeling. A basic understanding of terms, statistics, and ways of knowing (e.g. field observations, bench or lab studies, risk assessment, population modeling) is essential. At the same time, the facilitator can ask the “naïve” question that saves all others embarrassment and perhaps, at times, surfaces a key question or assumption that had not been considered before.

2) The facilitator needs to be aware of the particular pitfalls of technical groups and know how to intervene. These pitfalls include:

  • getting lost in the details (who doesn’t want to engage in a detailed discussion of the value of probabilistic study design in a grid or natural boundary approach?);
  • defending the particular method or tool that has been one’s life work at the expense of the group task at hand;
  • providing more data or information than is needed; and,
  • masking emotions and personalities behind technical arguments.

3) The facilitator needs to able to listen carefully for the problem to help the group make progress. Is the debate or conflict one of drawing conclusions from different data sets? Or, is it a lack of understanding of a newer methodology? A preference or bias for field data over probabilistic analysis? A misunderstanding of terms? Lack of clarity on the limitations of a particular tool? The facilitator does not need to know how to resolve the inevitable differences and debates that will arise (and in some sense, these differences are the gold of these kinds of discussions), but he or she does need to know how to identify them, bring them forward to the group, and then help the group address them constructively.

4) Facilitators play a valuable role in providing real-time summaries throughout the workshop. As these conversations tend to meander down various paths and demand, in some sense, a “directed muddling” to really tease out issues and deeper understanding, everyone — from observers, if there are any, to the experts themselves — benefits from taking stock of progress made, emerging areas of alignment, and naming outstanding issues to engage, resolve, or leave aside.

5) We don't think you can underestimate the value of the facilitator being excited about and interested in the topic at hand. Beneath all the terms, methods, and knowledge of technical experts are usually individuals who care deeply and passionately about the topics at hand. They can pick up, however unconsciously, if the facilitator is not as engaged in the topic as they are. Enthusiasm and interest can buy a facilitator a fair amount of leeway when their college calculus fails to return to them at a key moment.

Getting the Documentation Right
Ensuring that technical workshops leave everyone both better informed and with a clear sense of progress or direction involves carefully documenting the discussions.

It’s easy to get lost in meandering conversations and deep dives into technical details at the expense of a broader view of emerging consensus and other progress being made. Having a skilled note-taker, often as part of the facilitation team, to capture the conversation and then synthesize it in a summary document is important for ensuring that key areas of agreement, outstanding questions and sources of debate, action items, and next steps are clearly captured. As mundane as the job of note-taking sounds, it is important that the person tasked with the job has the capacity and interest to follow the discussion, and the wherewithal to draw out and synthesize the main themes and outcomes. A concise summary highlighting key themes is far more helpful than detailed meeting minutes, since it focuses on concrete points of progress, consensus and debate (and is also far more likely to be read!).

Creating concise and clear summaries of technical workshops is also invaluable for groups that intend to share their work and lessons learned beyond the technical experts in the room. Distilling technical conversations into a relatively short document that is easy to understand makes the workshop outcomes accessible to stakeholders and members of the public who may have interest in the topic but little ability to understand, say, the use of genetic analyses to estimate the effective population size of eastern red bats. If at least part of the group’s goal is to educate others or engage the public, then a good meeting summary is essential.