Project Management for Humans

August 28, 2017

This is a sample chapter from Brett Harned’s new book Project Management for Humans: Helping People Get Things Done. 2017 Rosenfeld Media.

Chapter 11: Facilitation for Project Managers (PMs)

Project Management for HumansI worked in retail when I was a teenager. Yup, I was a mall rat for a summer or two. I sold expensive sunglasses. Looking back on the experience, I can say that it gave me the perspective to understand how people make decisions when spending a lot of money on an item that they could get for much cheaper elsewhere. It was interesting to see what would drive someone to make a final decision to purchase a $200+ pair of sunglasses. As the salesman, I was incented to make sales for a commission. But I was also paid a base hourly wage, so I wasn’t a viper. I like to think I helped people make decisions on their purchases.

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I remember a time when a couple came into the store and told me they were looking to purchase a gift for a family member. (See Figure 11.1.) I asked them what styles they were looking for and gave them some options. We started with five pairs of sunglasses, and they narrowed it down to two options. They discussed the merit of the two very similar styles for what felt like four hours. Because I wanted to make the sale, but I didn’t know the person who was to receive the gift, I did everything in my power to help—without being that annoying salesperson. I shared facts about the glasses: lens colors, weights, quality, return policy, and so on. I also asked them things like, “When do you picture her wearing these?” and “What is her style?” Lots of ridiculous questions that I couldn’t believe were coming out of my mouth. Personally, I didn’t like either style. But I would never tell them that!

Figure 11.1—Helping shoppers actually develops great facilitation skills.
Helping shoppers can actually develop great facilitation skills.

Eventually, they made a decision that they both agreed on and were happy about it. While I was processing the credit card, they thanked me for the help because I helped them make a decision. All I could think was, “Sure, great. I just hope she doesn’t come back next week to return them!” Thankfully, that never happened. And it helped me understand what actually helped my customers to make a purchasing decision. I was able to use that experience to sell more and eventually to assist other people outside of the store to make decisions that felt right for them—not just for me.

People Make Projects Difficult

It’s not the technology or the creativity—it’s the people who produce the ideas and make the final decisions. Often, a project manager’s role becomes that of a facilitator because part of keeping a project on track is keeping the people on track. That doesn’t mean forcing decisions, but maybe gently suggesting ways to arrive at decisions. That’s right, it’s part process and all human, because effectively managing people and their interactions is part of managing the project.

Effective project management doesn’t happen without good facilitation skills. Project success depends on how the team is facilitated to make decisions, solve problems, and respond to risks and changes. PM facilitation provides a foundation of organization that allows a team to be creative and explore options together, but also make decisions, perform at a highly functioning level, and deliver on specific outcomes.

As a project manager, you walk the line between managing and intervening to make sure that work progresses with efficiency and stability. Essentially, you want to be an active member of the team, and that is done through facilitating the best decisions for the success of the project.

Brush Up Your Facilitation Skills

What does it take to be a great project facilitator while also being a project manager? In a perfect world, you would have a person who could act as just a facilitator—looking from the outside in to ask questions, challenge ideas, resolve disagreements, and generally help the team progress. In reality, that work typically falls on the shoulders of the project manager. And it’s no easy feat. Do you have what it takes to do the job? Sure you do, especially if you think about it in terms of what a facilitator might do. For instance, you might have to do the following:

  • Understand your team, their relationships, and the way they work together.
  • Keep an eye on project goals and how decisions being made might meet them.
  • Analyze and understand team issues and conflicts.
  • Recommend techniques or tools to sustain project momentum.
  • Manage team meetings effectively.
  • Ensure that the team is always making the best use of time.
  • Champion effective communications.

That’s a lot to keep an eye on, particularly when you’re also responsible for managing the process, to-do lists, a budget, scope, and maybe even project stakeholders. No matter what you do, it will be difficult to manage your own time and the project, its process, the team, and its decisions. Think you’re up to it? Yes, you are. If you’re feeling hesitant, or even a little confused, here are some core values to guide you when taking on the facilitation role.

Be Neutral

You want to deliver a successful project, and to you, success is rooted in meeting project goals. Don’t get wrapped up in the end result. We’ve all got opinions, particularly when it comes to how something looks. But that is not your role on the project. Put your personal opinion aside and focus on what will get you to the desired result rather than the result itself.

Keep Planning

Project plans are great because they show you the long-term trajectory of a project. But you should know that every decision, meeting, or task might require its own plan to ensure success. As a PM facilitator, you’ve got to have a plan for how your team will arrive most effectively at a conversation, decision, or deliverable. It’s your job to plan that.

Be Energetic

The best way to lead teams to decisions is by motivating them with an energy that inspires a positive outcome. If you’re sitting on the sidelines just watching or keeping quiet, then you’re doing it incorrectly. When you put a plan in place and you have faith in it, you can facilitate with an energy that will inspire action. It’s one of those magical parts of great project management that is truly hard to define. If you just be yourself and do everything you can to motivate a team, you will absolutely see results—and people will see that you helped in a major way.

Be a Great Communicator

Not to beat a dead horse, but a good PM doesn’t happen without great communication skills, and good facilitation can’t exist without effective communications. As a project facilitator, you will contribute to your team reaching mutual understanding of project goals and the best path to meet them. How do you do that? You pay special attention to each individual and how they are contributing to the process and the project, and make sure that their opinion is not only heard, but valued. When times are difficult, you do everything you can to understand each point of view and ensure that all options are being considered. Sometimes, you’ll act as a translator; sometimes, you’ll be a mediator; and at all times, you’ll be a friend and confidant to the whole team.

Be an Authority

Someone on the team has to set the boundaries for how you will work, how long something should take, and when a conversation has to stop. You’ll find yourself in conversations that go round and round, and it feels like there is no end. As a facilitator, you need to step in, set or even reset boundaries, and do everything in your power to get a conversation back on track. Remember, keep the goals in mind, and you’ll have a great filter for how to resolve any scenario.

Note: The Voice of Reason

Don’t be afraid to speak up! You may not be the final decision maker, but you are there to keep things on track, and sometimes that final decision maker needs your help to set boundaries.

Facilitation Techniques

Anyone can host a meeting, run a brainstorming session, or collect ideas from a team, but not everyone can do it efficiently. It takes the right balance and knowledge of project goals, team expertise, timing, tools, and you guessed it, facilitation skills. Before you jump in to a meeting, be sure to think about what will make for a great session:

Be Prepared

If you want to get the most out of your session, then prepare yourself and your team for the session. This might mean that you have to spend some time thinking about how the meeting will flow, what you will present, or what questions you will ask the team in order to ignite conversation and debate. Alternately, if you need someone else on the team to take some responsibility, make sure that you give that person time to prepare as well. After all, there is nothing worse than attending a meeting that feels disorganized.

Create the Right Environment

Meeting space comes at a premium in many offices. In order to run an effective session, make sure that the work you do will be accommodated by the space you have. Think about it. Will you need the following?

  • whiteboards
  • group seating
  • wall space
  • flip charts, sticky notes, markers
  • technology set up for remote attendees to see and participate
  • round tables with seats
  • one large table

The more you have prepared in terms of space and materials, the better the environment will be. And the more excited your team will be to participate.

Note: Remote Meetings

If you’re running a remote meeting or session, get into your meeting room 10–15 minutes in advance of the meeting to get the technology sorted out so that you can start without any delays. These sessions can often take longer than in-person sessions because of communication challenges. This is something to consider when scheduling and planning your agenda.

Ensure That the Expected Outcomes or Objectives Are Clear

Set an agenda that includes a statement of meeting goals. At the top of the meeting, be sure to review these goals with the group. You may even want to discuss what meeting these goals will mean to the rest of the project. Setting context can help to keep everyone on track.

Establish Expectations

Your agenda and meeting goals will set expectations for the meetings. At the same time, try to set some ground rules for your meeting. For instance, if you have limited time, you might agree that any mention of an outside topic will be shut down by the facilitator and added to a list of things to discuss later.

Do What Works

Your facilitation style needs to meet the needs of the group and the goals for the meeting. For example, you may want to facilitate by stepping back and letting conversation take place so that you can witness interactions and record decisions. Or you may lead a group exercise to see outcomes and discuss them as a group. No matter what, you have to recognize that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to facilitating meetings does not work.

Helpful Facilitation Tools

There are plenty of ways to engage a team, lead them to healthy conversation, and even make decisions. Some are simple conversational tactics, while others are interactive activities. You’ll do what feels right based on the goals and people involved. Here are a few that can help you.

Gate Keeping

The loudest voice can’t win! Everyone on a project should have equal footing when it comes to collaboration and discussion. With gate keeping, all participants have an equal opportunity to influence the decision to be made. As a facilitator, you can help make this happen by gate opening and gate closing.

  • gate opening—There’s always a quiet team member who tends to sit back and speak less or not speak at all. The problem is, that person may have information and thoughts that can impact decisions, or better yet, help make them. As the facilitator, it’s your job to get those people talking. Open the gate by asking direct questions of that person. Engage them with the group. You might be putting them on the spot, but it’s important to do when you want a well-rounded, inclusive conversation.
  • gate closing—Don’t let one person dominate a conversation or meeting, because when you do, you will end up with annoyed team members who are less motivated to act on ideas. It’s simple: inclusion builds trust, motivates teams, and helps decisions to be made. So, if John is dominating a meeting, simply interrupt him and ask if anyone else has a perspective to add. It might feel awkward, but your team will thank you for it later—and, you’ll get a better conversation going.
Use Flip Charts, Post-it Notes, and Sharpies

Sounds like an endorsement of specific merchandise in office-supply stores, huh? Well, it kind of is! As you can see in Figure 11.2, ironically, the digital industry seems to be keeping 3M in business. It’s amazing how much our highly technical teams use paper to generate ideas and consensus. But providing a hands-on experience allows all participants to provide ideas or input—bonus points for those shy people who’d rather write than speak—discuss them, merge them, and even come up with visual ways to represent complex ideas.

Figure 11.2—The digital industry seems to be keeping 3M in business.
Ironically, the digital industry seems to be keeping 3M in business.
Note: Better Meeting Interaction by Design

Want some ideas for exercises to run? Check out Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo. It includes several group activities, exercises, and games that help generate ideas and even build consensus.


We all conduct brainstorming sessions with the intent of generating as many ideas as possible, but are they always effective? Probably not. If you’re going to conduct a brainstorming session, you should structure that meeting and set some basic ground rules. If you truly want to create an environment that is accepting, open, and ready to truly be creative, remind everyone of the following tenets:

  • There is no such thing as a bad idea.
  • Good ideas can come from anyone on a team.
  • The goal of the meeting is to get as many ideas out as possible.
  • You’ll discuss the merits of all ideas as a group.
  • You’ll refine the list of ideas and remove the ones that just won’t work.
  • There are no hard feelings if your idea is not selected.
  • You will end the session with at least one final idea.

Need to get an answer to a complex question or gain consensus on a topic or issue? You can quickly get your team to come to a decision with a clustering exercise. There are a number of ways to do this, but you can start with this technique.

Pose the question/topic/scenario and have each attendee record their responses on Post-it notes—one response per note. Then have meeting participants quickly place the stickies into groups. Again, they make the decision and do the work. You can step back to facilitate the process, watch for emergent themes/outcomes, and then question the final results. This approach should lead to productive conversation with the goal of making a decision. This kind of exercise can be very helpful when you’re trying to diagnose an issue or a pain point, generate ideas, gain feedback, and much more. Plus, it’s a quick and easy way to get anything and everything on the table or wall.

The T

The T is a focusing technique that can put an end to what may feel like a never-ending unstructured debate. At the same time, it can help your team come to a decision with confidence and ease.

Here’s what to do: Draw a T for each item under debate on a whiteboard or flipchart; then have the group brainstorm and record the pros and cons—again, one point per sticky note. When they are done recording, they will place their points on the T From there, you will begin to see emergent themes, which will show consensus or allow for further debate, which is a discussion that you will facilitate.

Use the T when you need to get consensus—or discussion about issues—quickly. You can write directly on a board, as shown in Figure 11.3, or have participants write responses on sticky notes and then cluster them. This exercise is really great for figuring out issues or discussion points that stand in the way of a decision.

Figure 11.3—Use the T to get consensus quickly.
Use the <em>T</em> to get consensus quickly.

Beat Meeting Fatigue

Every project manager’s day is filled with meetings. These can be meetings about projects, meetings with clients, ad hoc team gatherings, internal and client status meetings, and so on. The list of possibilities for work gatherings seems endless. That can be a problem! Too many meetings can mean lower team productivity, and too few meetings can cause strains in team communication and gaps in knowledge. There’s certainly a tricky balance to find the right amount of meeting time, and it’s tough to ensure that each one will be productive.

Finding the right balance and offering the team value in each and every meeting often lies on a project manager’s shoulders. But don’t worry, you can become a PM meeting master by finding the balance between the art of communicating a meeting’s importance and the science of how it’s best managed.

First Step: Determine Meeting Value

Of course, there is no mystery in what makes a meeting successful or abysmally bad. Just scheduling a meeting can be difficult, what with ensuring timeliness of the discussion, navigating the issues at hand, and coordinating people—and their busy schedules. Plus, you have to deal with internal factors. For instance, in some organizational cultures, meetings are seen as unnecessary or bad. In others, they are healthy places to exchange ideas, or even to get work done. Whether you think they’re good or a hassle, you should know that you, the project manager, can help determine the time, length, agenda, and value of a meeting.

Before you throw something on the calendar, it’s best to think strategically about your meeting. Part of the reason many professionals sigh or grunt at the thought of a meeting is because it could be seen as an interruption in their day. Think about it—if you’re working with a team who is making a product, they need a good amount of time to sit down and focus on what they’re making. A meeting about something peripheral to the project can throw their concentration off very quickly. So how can you determine if a meeting is actually needed? Follow these guidelines:

  1. Be clear about the meeting’s goals. It may seem silly, but going into a meeting knowing what you want to get out of it will help you make decisions on who should be there, when it should happen, and how long it might take. Before you schedule anything, ask yourself, “What is the goal of this meeting?” and “Do we actually need a meeting to hit this goal?”
  2. Who needs to be in this meeting? Look back at that goal. Is it something that your entire team should be involved in? Be sure to protect your time as well as your team’s time. The last thing you want to do is pull people into a meeting if they are not needed. Think about it this way: “Will this person talk in the meeting?” If the answer is no, he is off the hook.
  3. What is needed to make this meeting a success? Give attendees everything they will need for this meeting in advance. Your best bet is to attach the information to the meeting invitation. This could include advance notes, handouts, documents for review, and so on. The more prep you can provide, the more productive the meeting will be.
  4. Does this meeting have to happen today, tomorrow, or even next week? Think back to that meeting goal. How will it impact your project, decisions that are being made, the people in the meeting—and the work they have going on—your clients, your budget, and timeline? There’s a lot in play there! Project managers often think every issue is the most important, but when it comes to determining the best timing—or if a meeting can wait—take the time to think through those impacts and create priorities.
  5. How much time do we need? Again, protect that time! If you only need 15 minutes, take it. If you need an hour and a half, that’s OK, too. Be sure to communicate the intent and value of the meeting to attendees so they come into it knowing that you’re not wasting their time. Remember, you are the PM, and you control the calendar. If a meeting will stress your calendar or your team’s, you can take responsibility for finding a better time.
  6. What is the agenda? Always create a meeting agenda, even for the shortest meetings. Be sure to include the meeting agenda in the meeting invitation and add names next to conversation or presentation points so that attendees know their responsibility for the meeting. Having an agenda will help you stick to the meeting goals, formulate what potential to-do items could be, and keep the conversation on track.
Note: Courteous Scheduling

Never double-book someone for a meeting. If someone is unable to make a meeting and you can’t find another time, approach that person and ask if they are OK with missing the meeting. Promise thorough meeting notes and offer a followup if you just need to make a meeting happen and the person is secondary to the conversation at hand.

Note: Know and Share the Agenda

Want to save yourself time? Set a team rule: no meetings should be scheduled without an agenda. After all, if you don’t know what a meeting is about or for, why attend? You deserve to know that, as well as to have the space and time to prepare.

Ensure Meeting Greatness

After you’ve determined that your meeting will happen and you’ve set the agenda, it’s up to you to make sure that it lives up to everyone’s expectations. Remember, you are the project facilitator, so it is absolutely your job. No fear, you can do this! You can lay the groundwork for a highly productive meeting by establishing some rules, creating some roles, and addressing potential distractions.

Determine Meeting Roles

If your meeting is fairly formal, make sure that you have some basic roles and responsibilities covered. Read through the following roles \and determine what’s right for you and the people you’re gathering.

  • leader—The leader is the team member who calls the meeting and takes responsibility for communication before and after. In addition to being a participant, this person may guide discussion on all items or perhaps ask others to lead the entirety or parts of the meeting.
  • facilitator—The facilitator keeps the discussion and decision-making process moving along. Typically, the facilitator is not involved in the content of the meeting—rather, they guide conversation through the agenda and help the group with decision making.
  • recorder—The note-taker is a non-negotiable role in any meeting. Meeting notes are very important. Having someone record general points made, action items, and to-dos is critical to the success of any meeting. On that note, meeting notes should be distributed as soon after the meeting as possible. It can be very helpful to store notes in a system where meeting attendees can review and update points made.
  • timekeeper—If you want to be really expedient, ask someone to keep an eye on the clock. Start on time and end on time, and everyone will be happy.
Note: A Record of the Meeting

Record a meeting’s audio or video if you think it may come in handy later.

These roles are only meant to be general guidelines. Not every meeting will even have enough attendees to make this happen! A general rule of thumb should be that the folks whose attendance is critical to the conversation at hand are in attendance with no additional job in the meeting. If you need help with moderation or note-taking, by all means, ask for help. After all, you’re a PM, not Superman.

Note: When Multitasking Is Too Much

In many cases, the PM may play all of these roles, as well as the participant role. It’s a tricky balance. If you don’t feel as though you can do it all, ask someone to help. Your best bet is to find someone to help you take notes so that you can actively join in the conversation.

Make It a Productive Meeting

All too often, attendees will show up with a laptop or devices in tow. It’s really hard to disconnect these days, but if the people meant to be engaged in the discussion are sidetracked by what’s happening on their screens, they will be distracted from your important conversation. If you’re feeling brave, ask attendees to leave laptops and devices on their desks.

At the end of the day, it’s your job as a PM and facilitator to make sure that the team stays on task and that the goals of your meeting are met. Maybe you’ll employ an exercise or facilitate a conversation, or maybe you’ll sit back and record results. But no matter what you do, make sure that you’re not wasting anyone’s time.

Facilitation Through Activities

By Sara Wachter-Boettcher—Content Strategy Consultant, author of Content Everywhere, and co-author of Design for Real Life.

I started doing content strategy work because I kept seeing clients with the same problems: overwhelming navigation, big blobs of inconsistent copy, and pages and pages of fluff that didn’t need to be there. So I set out to fix them: audit the content, rewrite the copy, reorganize the site around a new information architecture. I was pretty good at it, too.

Eventually, I found myself working with a large government agency with thousands of pages of content—and I was excited to whip that site into shape. I built content models, established style guidelines, and edited my heart out. By launch, I had transformed their mess into something I was proud of.

It didn’t last. Pretty soon, the copy grew back into a blob. People stopped following the style guide. Critical CMS fields were left empty.

What I realized is that my content expertise wasn’t cutting it. I also needed to bring people along with me—people who might not be Web experts, but who would be responsible for sustaining things after I’d gone. That’s when I found facilitation.

Rather than try to control the content myself, I learned to focus on helping teams see their content differently, build skills, and make content choices themselves. It’s a skill I’ve been honing for several years now, and it’s completely changed how I work.

For example, I recently had another client with thousands of pages of content cluttering a dated, hard-to-use Web site. This time, I didn’t jump into “fix” mode. Instead, I invited everyone who had a stake in the site to help make content decisions, right from the start.

In our first major workshop, when we were deciding what was most important to communicate, I facilitated an activity that used mad libs—a simple fill-in-the-blank statement about the Web site’s goals and audience that the team had to collaborate on and come up with a plan they could all agree to. This gave people who often didn’t feel like they had a say, a chance to be included and heard, and it also forced everyone to forget their pet projects and focus on what really mattered. Everyone left the workshop with a core understanding of what we were trying to do—and a tool they could use later to keep the content on track.

Later on, we needed to determine how the existing content needed to adapt for the new strategy. Rather than me telling them what to fix, I instead facilitated an audit workshop, where the people who owned the content looked at pages together and assessed them using the strategy they’d all agreed on. This made the strategy click—taking it from an abstract concept to something that would drive even tiny writing decisions. That never would have happened if I’d done it for them.

The results weren’t perfect, of course. The team still ended up with a little more jargon and a little longer copy than I would have liked. That’s OK. They made progress—and when their Web site launched, they had the skills and habits to keep it on track.


Understand what it means to be a facilitator: Set the tone for conversations. Allow the space and time that projects require for work to be done and decisions to be made. Often, people and their opinions get in the way of those things being done in a timely fashion. It’s the PM’s job to facilitate the conversations and process that lead teams to wrap up projects successfully. Here’s how to do it:

  • Decisions, plan for the best ways to meet them.
  • Remember, you have to be the PM, not a critic. Stay neutral and help teams to achieve consensus.
  • Be authoritative. Lead a process that helps your team make decisions. Step in when they need to be reeled in, because your team needs you to keep them on track.
  • Set the tone and make sure that the environment is conducive to making decisions.
  • Always work through the lens of project goals and remind your team of them as needed.
  • Build your facilitator’s toolkit so that you can use techniques that will generate ideas, build consensus, and lead to decision making.
  • Understand the value of meetings and how to run them effectively without wasting precious work time.

On and Up

I won’t indulge you here with another personal story that relates to endings. Rather, I’ll tell you that this is just the beginning for elevating digital project management in the industry as well as with traditional project management. We’ve only begun to explore the best ways to work as digital teams, and I expect more to be introduced and uncovered in the future.

This book serves as a foundation for how to handle any project with any team successfully, even under the most frustrating circumstances. Trust me, I have been there, and I wish I had thought through some of these principles and practices before jumping into those fires. But I never would have been able to correct my mistakes and formulate better practices without making those mistakes. And I urge you to do the same.

Share your experience and practices with those around you. Build upon the principles and practices shared in this book. Have the confidence to lead, facilitate healthy communications, craft processes that work, and be a human who can make mistakes—and recover from them. You can do this. 

Discount for UXmatters Readers—Buy Brett Harned’s book Project Management for Humans: Helping People Get Things Done from Rosenfeld Media, using the discount code uxmatters, and save 20% off the retail price.

Digital Project–Management Consultant at Digital PM Consulting LLC

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Brett HarnedBrett’s work as a digital project–management consultant, coach, and community advocate focuses on solving issues that are important to organizations that want to produce quality digital projects in harmony. He loves building processes and communication tactics that work not only for the projects, but for the people working on them. Before starting his consultancy, Brett was VP of Project Management for Happy Cog, where he mentored a team of Project Managers and managed projects for companies such as Zappos, MTV, and Monotype. Brett began blogging when he realized that there was little content for people in the Digital Project Manager role. He has spoken at international events and written for various industry Web sites and publications. One of the most satisfying projects of Brett’s career has been building a global digital project–management community and founding the Digital PM Summit. Most recently, Brett co-founded the PathfinderDPM training program for Digital Project Managers in the US and UK.  Read More

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