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meeting facilitation

The difference between a meeting facilitator and a meeting sponsor

Reading time: about 8 min

We all know the familiar story of meetings. You attend, unsure of why you're there or what you're supposed to do. You hear lots of thoughts and ideas tossed around and even answer a few questions. Often, at the end of the meeting, it's not clear why you were there or what needs to happen next.

There are two essential functions in a meeting that can turn the experience from lackluster to productive and inspiring. Meeting sponsors and meeting facilitators are the linchpin of the productive meeting. And while often conflated, sponsors and facilitators have distinct roles. When sponsors and facilitators work collaboratively, it can lead to meetings that truly add value for the team.

What is a meeting sponsor?

The meeting sponsor is often the person who has requested the meeting or stated a need for one. Sponsors have the most to gain or lose from the meeting, as they are typically seeking information from the team, consensus on a strategy, or a course of action. At a department all-hands meeting, for example, your department executive is likely the sponsor for that meeting. At a Scrum team's daily meeting, the team is the sponsor.

Sponsors are important because they are typically the source for understanding the purpose of the meeting. They can also help set the tone and expectations for the meeting so that the team has guidance.

What is a meeting facilitator?

The meeting facilitator is, above all else, a neutral party. Their focus is on fostering collaboration and engagement by creating a container to house effective teamwork. If you're having a project kickoff meeting, the project leader might be the meeting facilitator. In a Scrum team daily meeting, the Scrum Master is often the facilitator.

Facilitators lean on many soft skills to obtain this goal. They will often use skills like listening, reading the room, fostering interaction, and asking just the right questions to garner participation. With a facilitator in the room, trust and collaboration thrive.

How do meeting sponsors and meeting facilitators work together?

While it may seem like meeting sponsors and facilitators are mutually exclusive, they are actually both essential to having a successful meeting. Sponsors and facilitators need to work together before, during, and after the meeting to ensure key objectives are met.

Collaborate ahead of time to define meeting purpose

Before the meeting, you'll want to meet with the sponsor to define the meeting purpose, articulate objectives, and identify the participants. The goal of this preliminary meeting is to understand their vision for the meeting and what they would like to see come out of it. 

Defining the purpose will likely be fairly easy—sponsors typically ask for a meeting to kick off a project, solve a problem, or set a course of action. Articulating the objectives may be a little more difficult. As a facilitator, you’ll want to come prepared with a few questions for the sponsor to draw out what they hope the meeting will achieve. You can ask questions such as: 

  • What do you want to accomplish through this meeting?
  • What problems should we address in this meeting? 
  • What benefits do you hope to realize?
  • What organizational issues need our attention?
  • What is the current situation of the group? 
  • What is the desired future state of the group?

The last three questions are more important than they may seem. Each team has varying dynamics, and sponsors and facilitators should be aware of those dynamics going into a meeting. It's also helpful to know the sponsor's desired future state for the team, as well-facilitated meetings can go a long way in moving toward that state.

To that point, you will want to get a list of attendees from the sponsor. It’s worth doing some due diligence on the attendee list to ensure the right people are in the room. Having participants there who don't have a clearly defined purpose can lead to distractions that take the meeting off course. Missing essential participants can lead to a stall in progress and may require rescheduling to bring in the right people. 

Check-in with the participants to ensure they each have a clearly defined purpose for attending. This is also an opportunity to ask the participants what they hope to achieve from the meeting. Conversations like these can surface pain points around the topic at hand. These realizations may shape your official agenda to achieve the larger goals of a project.

During the meeting, sponsors and facilitators perform their separate functions

Facilitators often build trust during a meeting, which happens most effectively when they remain neutral. By definition, sponsors can't be neutral. They should instead clearly state their expectations at the beginning of the meeting and convey how the meeting ladders up to larger objectives.

If you are the meeting facilitator, you want to focus on creating a safe space for collaboration. That starts with setting strong ground rules for how attendees will participate. Set the expectation that everyone should provide input and describe the process for how to speak up.

While the discussion is happening, keep an eye on the pace of the discussions and the tone. If things seem to be dying down or going off course, create opportunities for engagement. You can offer up questions that help direct the team's focus or garner participation. Another option is to suggest or highlight solutions that surface, as this can serve as a framework for the team to spur creative thinking.

You also want to make sure everyone is paying attention throughout the meeting. Visuals can help keep the team engaged and provide a single source of truth. Digital whiteboards like Lucidspark can help you keep track of the important points that emerge.

Debrief after the meeting to determine success of the meeting and next steps

After the meeting, it's time for the sponsor and facilitator to come back together. You'll want to determine if the sponsor feels that the meeting achieved the desired outcomes. You'll also want to clarify the next steps that came out of the meeting. This clarification step is crucial—not just to achieving the key objectives but also to building trust with the team. Attendees will be more cooperative and collaborative in future meetings if they see that the meeting yields tangible progress.

Why is it important to have a designated meeting facilitator? 

Meeting facilitators bring the following benefits with them that add value to both the sponsor and the whole team:

  • Create a framework for effective collaboration: Since facilitators are neutral, they can focus on building and sharing the agenda, prepping attendees ahead of time for what's going to be discussed, and establishing consensus on the meeting process so that attendees are on the same page. They can effectively bring enough peace to the room to have productive conversations.
  • Ensure everyone's voice gets heard: There is often a mix of extroverted and introverted attendees in a meeting. It takes a particular skill set to both manage extroverted people so that they don't overtake the conversation and draw out introverted people to feel comfortable joining the conversation in their way. Facilitators will often state the ground rules for participation at the beginning of the meeting to ensure people are comfortable chiming in. During the meeting, they'll enforce those ground rules so that everyone has an opportunity to contribute.
  • Help the team focus on stated objectives and goals: Whenever you have a group of people in one room, you risk having conversations that go off course. Facilitators can help determine when those conversations are productive, gently steer teams back on track when the conversations aren't constructive, and adjust the agenda as needed to make room for unplanned but important conversations. That leaves room for sponsors to freely participate in the discussion without negotiating other factors such as time management or meeting priorities.
  • Facilitate clear communication and understanding between participants: Because facilitators are not participating in the discussion per se, they can more easily hear participants' different perspectives and help clarify misunderstandings where necessary. Facilitators can also gather consensus between attendees so that everyone is aligned and can move forward. This consensus helps clarify gray areas such as the meeting process, important pain points, options for solutions, and next steps.
  • Manage the meeting details so participants can tackle the issues: Environment is everything when fostering a productive meeting. If attendees are uncomfortable or stressed, they will not fully participate. When you have a facilitator, they can focus on setting the right stage for participation so that you get the most out of attendees. This can involve choosing an accessible location or platform for the meeting, ensuring there are food and beverage provisions when necessary, and providing visuals such as whiteboards to record ideas, solutions, and next steps.

Investing in effective meeting facilitation is the difference between a meeting that makes progress and a meeting that goes nowhere. Without facilitators, you risk having a meeting where participants feel confused, unprepared, and disinclined to speak. Post-meeting, you risk confusion around what the team has agreed to, what needs to happen next, and who is committing to executing the next steps. 

With a meeting facilitator on board, the team can make progress more quickly and efficiently. Team members are more likely to come to the meeting prepared to engage, and they are more likely to get to solutions that will bring optimal results. Attendees leave the meeting knowing that it was time well spent, with a clear sense of what needs to happen next for the team to reach their objectives.

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