The Facilitator-in-Chief Failed Miserably

President Obama, renowned for his love of wonkish talk-fests, utterly failed as a facilitator at last week's Health Care Summit. As one who has facilitated expert groups for twenty years, with over 20,000 hours of group-conflict-management experience gained in over 800 meetings, workshops, and come-to-you-know-who events, I would have coached him on the following points had he been my direct report:

1. Never attempt to facilitate a meeting when one has a vested, biased interest in the outcome. This is insulting and disingenuous to opposing participants. The successful facilitator must be transparently objective and unbiased in regard to the outcome reached by the group. A facilitator's objective is to lead the group through a problem-solving process that abides by the group's mission statement while abiding by the meeting's rules of conduct (all published with the invitation). The president's conflict of interest disqualified him. This should have been recognized during the meeting's planning. If participants' attendance is compulsory, then they should attend under protest and insist that the president, if he wants to attend, participate as host with rights to contribute, but not as facilitator. To say, for example, that his time did not count for the Democratic Party side simply insults one's intelligence. If you want a democratically valid result, then conduct the meeting fairly and democratically.

2. It is not the role of the facilitator to openly judge any participant's statements as "legitimate" or not. Their very presence as sanctioned participants grants their remarks legitimacy, however immature, illogical, ill-prepared, off-point, or irrelevant they may be. Other group members may disagree with a point, but a facilitator is not allowed to make judgments on legitimacy, except on matters of procedure. If I had been his boss, I would have stepped in and stopped the meeting, taken Mr. Obama (as facilitator, not the president) aside, and read him the riot act for such insidious condescension. It was also highly insulting for the president to speak to others on a first-name basis while he was addressed by his honorific "Mr. President." Shame on him. He should have set the example by respecting official titles (defined by the Constitution) when persons were acting in official capacities.

3. The best participant list would have included "Subject Matter Experts from the House" and "Subject Matter Experts from the Senate," hosted by the HHS Secretary, with opening host remarks by the president in his executive role. For example, the most thoughtful comments came from those with experience in health care, insurance, and health care consumers. Some participants had no expertise to contribute.

4. The room arrangement was all wrong. Where people sit relative to each other promotes or hinders problem-solving collaboration. Seat opposing participants in shoulder-to-shoulder orientations, not face-to-face. Face-to-face is for negotiations and confrontations; rubbing shoulders promotes collaboration. The seasoned facilitator anticipates which participants carry the most influence and therefore assigns their seats so they sit next to each other. They must be able to smell each other sweat. As they will be the most vocal in their respective opinions, the confident facilitator requires them to work together in close physical proximity. This allows the facilitator to step in close and hand-hold them through contentious conversations, building on points of agreement and acknowledging and diffusing their disagreements. The expert facilitator absorbs their emotional passions and not does not allow them to project them upon their adversaries. 

I would have put the Speaker of the House next to the Minority Whip, and the Senate Majority Leader next to the on-point Senator from the Minority. They would all be in the front row with the president and his HHS Secretary, together, on the facilitator's left or right (based upon honorific protocol) of that foursome. I would have placed Democrat and Republican members in alternating chairs in parallel rows of tables behind the first row, most senior toward the front. They would all be, in this sense, shoulder-to-shoulder. They would all face the facilitator, who works in front of a 20 ft. wide x 8 ft. high tacky wall upon which the facilitator places notes of paper capturing the problem narrative. This enables the facilitator to focus the group on each discussion point with superb time-management efficiency. Participants without portfolio, such as the Vice President, who quipped that "[y]ou don't have to do anything" for that job, need not attend; better to give the space to a subject matter expert.

5. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had projected these tacky-wall notes into a national "Go-to-Meeting"-style server where anyone with internet access could log in?  Can you imagine the thoughtful "live chat" a group of monitors could have gleaned in real time (while weeding out the nut-roots comments)? We have the technology to bring the brightest technical subject matter experts into the room with these congressional representatives. What a fabulously missed opportunity.

My overall assessment of the summit is one of profound disappointment. An executive friend asked if I could have done better then the president. Without hesitation I said yes, with a caveat; the objective of the meeting must be morally good and involve a legal enterprise, and there must be a commitment from the top to finding a real solution.

Joseph Rosenberger earlier noted Mr. Obama's facilitation temperament.