Recorder_HeaderDramatis personæ
Fred: Director of IT (the meeting owner)
Heather:  Senior Business Analyst
Oscar:  Accounting Manager
Ben:  Accounting Specialist
Cheryl:  Marketing Manager
Dablu: Senior Software Engineer
Other Stakeholders:  Corps de Ballet

Fred:  Okay, let’s get started now that everyone’s here.  We’re already ten minutes behind.  I’d like to pick up where we left off on Monday.  We had just decided to proceed with a custom application rather than an off-the-shelf package and…

Oscar:  Wait a minute, Fred.  You know I wasn’t able to be here on Monday and so I couldn’t be part of that decision.  I think we need to revisit that first.

Fred:  Oscar, I think we really need to move forward.  We spent the better part of Monday’s meeting putting the pros and cons of off-the-shelf versus custom in columns on the whiteboard and then prioritizing them.  Heather, you got a picture of the whiteboard, right?

Heather:  Well, no, actually.  I took a call on my cell right at the end of the meeting and by the time I finished, the folks in the next meeting had already erased it.

Fred:  Did anyone get it down on paper?

Dablu:  Well, I managed to take notes on some of it, but once we were up out of our chairs working at the board, I don’t have anything.

Ben:  Yeah, it was all moving pretty fast.

Fred:  Wow.  Well, okay, let’s quickly review what we remember the top reasons for our decision were.

Cheryl:  The top reason we had was that our custom information pipeline would not be supported by any packaged solution right out of the box.

Dablu:  I don’t think that’s right.  I remember it being our in-house expertise on the pipeline and the fact that we would be able to reuse code.

Ben:  No, no.  I think that changed when we started talking about the source control problem.

Stakeholder 1:  I don’t remember that at all…

Sound familiar?  A common challenge in most meeting formats is to produce documentation appropriate to the event.  When I am a participant in a meeting, I am the world’s worst note taker; my attention is on the meeting content.  In my experience, I am not alone.  Most others in the meeting are in the same boat.  In fact, good meeting notes require a focus and objectivity of their own.  Unless there is someone in the room dedicated to taking notes, meeting output gets lost just as it did for our intrepid players here.  In mere hours following the end of a meeting, the participants have developed diverse perspectives on what actually occurred.

Different meetings have different requirements with respect to documentation.  For daily standup meetings, the need is minimal.  For more formal meetings with prescribed decisions or output, the need for a published record of some detail is much greater.  For meetings of civic or governing bodies, precise documentation is legally imperative. As the need for documentation increases, so does the desirability of having a dedicated chronicler in attendance.

Facilitated meetings have a more complex requirement for documentation. Except in very rare cases, the role of facilitator must be focused on the process.  Because this requires 100% attention on the participants, the mechanics of appropriate documentation conflict with the role.  This is why most facilitators employ at least one trained recorder.

Role clarity is critical.  While the roles of the facilitator and the recorder are complimentary in practice, the requirements of the two roles tend to conflict with one another if one person is trying to perform both. Three key factors make them generally mutually exclusive.

  • Focus: The facilitator is responsible for keeping the process moving.  This requires minute attention to the individual participants and where each of them is with respect to the process.  The recorder, on the other hand, is responsible for listening accurately and transcribing in some medium with equal accuracy.
  • Orientation: The facilitator needs to be in constant personal contact with the participants.  This means not only making eye contact, but with a body orientation that is open to them (3/4 front to full front).  In most meeting situations, the recorder is working on a white board or wall at the front or sides of a room.  This means that his/her back is consistently turned toward the participants.
  • Pace: The participants set the pace of the process and it is the job of the facilitator to regulate that pace.  Depending on the activity, it is important for the pace to be consistent throughout the activity and not stalled by external constraints.  The recorder is constrained by how quickly he or she can transcribe oral statements to written form.  Often, more than one recorder is required to keep a process flowing.

The facilitator and recorders need to have a firmly established working relationship.  The recorders need to understand the meeting process thoroughly and be attentive to the facilitator’s instructions as well as the needs of the moment.  These team members should establish a repertoire of subtle visual and vocal signals to indicate the need for a course correction.  For instance, if the recorders feel that they are falling behind, they might parrot back the last idea as they transcribe to indicate to the facilitator that they need a little more time.  Conversely, if the facilitator notices one or more participants squinting, he might ask, “Do we need to be recording a little larger?”  The recorders would automatically adjust without stopping the flow of the meeting.

The recorder role is more than merely writing down what is said.  There are many characteristics of the ideal recorder, but here are the most important ones.

  • Impartiality: The recorders should not color what they are documenting with their own viewpoint. The process becomes contaminated if the content ceases to belong to the participants.
  • Accuracy: The recorders should record in the participants’ own words. Rewording invalidates the participants’ contributions.
  • Legibility: The recorders should strive to make the output large enough and clear enough to be read by the participants. This includes changes of color or format when necessary.
  • Inclusiveness: The recorders should record everything, even if it is “off topic.”  The group can later decide if an idea needs to be reclassified or moved to a “parking lot.”
  • Knowledge: The recorders should familiarize themselves with the terminology of the business ahead of the facilitated sessions.  The concepts need to flow from mind to wall with minimal need to interrupt for explanation.
  • Flexibility: The recorders need to go with the flow and not get hung up on details such as spelling (which can be corrected later). Also, they need to understand that if the dynamics of a meeting so dictate, the facilitator may change the process from what the team rehearsed.  The recorders must be able to take the change in stride and support the new process.

Being the recorder for a meeting, whether facilitated or not, requires detachment from the meeting content in order to capture what is actually occurring in the room.  The recorder needs to understand the level of detail required in the documentation for that particular circumstance.  Following the meeting, the recorder needs to complete and submit the documentation for distribution as soon as possible so that the results may be validated by the participants and stakeholders.

Meeting planning consists of much more than cranking out an agenda.  Meeting documentation is one of the key considerations in preparing for and leading a meeting process.  At the minimum, it should reflect decisions, issues, and accountabilities that resulted from the meeting. At the end of a facilitated process, it also needs to reflect group input and consensus at each stage of the process in order to support the process outcome.  In this, skilled recording is essential.

Let us return to our drama which began above.  You get the idea from what was said that in the prior meeting the team had followed a productive process even in the absence of a facilitator.  Nevertheless, the value of the work and accomplishment of that meeting was lost.  Let us look in again and see how Fred refloats his team’s sinking boat and sets it once again on course.

Fred:  Hold on, everyone.  It’s clear that I’ve dropped the ball on this process.  We had a pretty effective meeting on Monday, didn’t we?

Cheryl:  I thought so.

Dablu:  Me too.

Fred:  Well, by failing to preserve the output of that meeting we’ve lost pretty much everything we did together.  So here’s what I propose we do.  I’ll adjourn this meeting and reschedule for early next week.  In the meantime, I’ll talk to the Project Management Office and contract for a Recorder and a Scribe.  When we meet next week, we’ll see that everything gets recorded so that we can always pick up right where we left off.  The Recorder will get everything down on flipcharts and butcher paper and the Scribe will get everything else.  We’ll publish the meeting notes within twenty-four hours of the meeting and at subsequent meetings we’ll rehang any relevant output from the preceding meetings.  Does this make sense?

Oscar:  It does to me.

[All heads nod agreement.]

Fred:  Right, then.  Thanks, everyone.  Meeting adjourned.


Do you employ dedicated recorders in your meetings?  How does your organization determine the level of meeting documentation required?



Whose Role is it Anyway?

Role_Clarity_HeaderA community theatre production is an excellent example of role clarity in action. Having well-defined roles is as important there as it is in meeting facilitation, business, and life. And for the likes of me, role clarity is an essential life skill because I am a jack-of-many-trades and a master of none.

The thespian analogy is particularly sharp right now because of a community theatre production in which I am the onstage pianist. It is a four-person show: two men (Man 1 and Man 2) and two women (Woman 1 and Woman 2). Over the course of two hours, each actor plays upwards of a dozen distinct roles, each of which must be unique and clearly defined. In addition, the actors have the overall role of “actor” as distinct from the band, the stage crew, the lighting board operator, or the dressers. Each participant must focus on his/her role while remaining cognizant of and tapped into the whole in order for theatre magic to happen.

Meeting magic is similar. In good meetings there must be distinct and clearly defined roles. The same role focus coupled with general awareness is essential. Here are the six key roles.

  • Facilitator: The facilitator is a disinterested party whose role is to manage the mechanics of the meeting. Having no vested interest in any decision made during the meeting, the facilitator can plan and direct the process that gets the participants to the desired meeting outcome. The facilitator may not participate in the meeting content nor comment on it in any way.
  • Recorder: Like the facilitator, the recorder is an impartial role. The recorder is responsible for capturing the precise words of the participants during the main discussions and structured activities. Often, this involves writing ideas on flip charts or butcher paper in front of the meeting. The recorder does not revise or interpret anything that is said, but may ask for clarification.
  • Scribe: The scribe is responsible for all other note taking at a meeting. It is best for the scribe to also be disinterested, but not necessarily a requirement. The scribe captures other issues, sidebar conversations, and anything else that the recorder does not capture.
  • Participant: The participants are the people in a meeting who generate the ideas and make the decisions depending on the circumstances. In theory, they are directly interested in and affected by the meeting outcome.
  • Organizer: The organizer is the individual who arranges for the meeting to occur and contracts the facilitator and recorder. The organizer may be a participant and may also be the meeting owner. In general, the facilitator performs most of the planning in conjunction with the meeting organizer.
  • Owner: The owner is the individual (or individuals) who called the meeting in the first place. The owner may or may not participate, and the owner may or may not be the organizer. The owner may allow the participants to make decisions or may make his/her own decisions based on the meeting outcome.


As you can see, each of the roles is distinct and bounded by limitations. Nevertheless, some may remain unique within a situation while others overlap. In the latter case, clarity as to how they overlap is important in every situation. For instance, the executive who has gathered his line managers in order to set direction for the year needs to make clear to the participants whether or not they are setting the directions with the executive’s equal input, or whether they are there merely to provide the decision maker with information. Similarly, the Executive Director who organizes the annual planning retreat for a non-profit board of directors needs to understand clearly his role in the meeting. Is he an equal participant or is he there only to provide clarifications?   Ideally, the facilitator acts in facilitator role only, but in smaller meetings may also function as both facilitator and recorder.

Role clarity is really about articulating boundaries for the actions one will take within a given circumstance. Those boundaries define what the person will and will not do within the given role. Even where the boundaries are not sharp, where they start and end is important for everyone to understand. Boundaries become a form of contract between the participants in an activity. Even in role-playing games, there are clearly defined roles such as gamemaster to provide structure to the activity.

The reason these boundaries are so important is because each role has different requirements. That is, in order to fulfill a given role successfully, certain conditions need to exist or certain actions must be taken. When these conditions or actions come into conflict with one another, one or more of the roles cannot be fulfilled effectively. The role of facilitation requires neutrality while that of the meeting participant requires the opposite. Since the requirements conflict, one individual cannot fulfill these two roles within the same meeting. Similarly, a pianist accompanying a dance concert must focus on the mental and physical requirements of playing the instrument. The stage manager needs to be concerned with all of the technical details in every aspect of the production and cannot focus on those specific mental and physical needs. The requirements conflict, so the two roles must be separate.

This is not to say that the pianist cannot be a good stage manager or vice versa. In fact, one person may be able to assume a variety of roles successfully depending on the situation. The facilitator is also trained as a recorder and might have that role at one meeting and facilitator at another. In some companies, the facilitator might be a participant in meetings within his own department but act as facilitator for meetings in other departments. This is not unlike the theatre where an individual might be director for one production and an actor in another and perhaps a member of the stage crew in yet another.

Blended roles still require clarity and delineation. In the theatre, a production might require the actors to perform the scene changes as part of the choreographed action. In this case, the focus remains the characters and the onstage picture created for the audience. If an actor were to depart from this focus and take it upon herself to rearrange the stage left prop table between scenes, she is likely to miss an entrance as well as mess things up for the other cast members. Similarly, the facilitator who steps out of his neutral role and comments on the meeting content – no matter how correct or pertinent his observation – has violated his trust with the participants and may no longer be able to prevent meeting dysfunction.

Role clarity is a particular challenge for the jack-of-many-trades. It seems that we are born with a low threshold of boredom and thrive on new knowledge and skills. We delight in acquiring new competencies but more often than not move on to something new before achieving mastery. Consequently, we frequently find ourselves in situations where we could advise on a number of topics and this is where the danger lies. Doing so results in two consequences. First, we run the risk of not fulfilling our own role adequately because we have allowed our focus to wander or the role requirements conflict. Second, we tread upon the roles of others, which causes stress and confusion that erodes team cohesion.

In no case is role clarity a mandate for tunnel vision. Each individual needs to be fully aware of everyone else involved in whatever the circumstances. In a meeting, the participants need to be as aware of the signals the facilitator is sending as he is of the changing needs in the room. Similarly, actors and stage crew in the theatre troupe should be aware of their surroundings enough to recognize when something has gone wrong and be able to make a correction for it. Role clarity and environmental awareness work hand in hand. It is the integration of the diverse roles working together that makes the magic happen.

Are the roles in your organization clearly defined? Where in life do we need to apply these principles the most?




My Favorite Failures…and the Life Lessons They Taught Me (Part 3)

Chopin_HeaderHere is the finale in my series of failure stories.  As before, every single word is true.  This time, there were no names to change except, perhaps, my own.

The Eight-Thumbed Piano Man

For a time, I was the music specialist in the Dance Department at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.  The job was multifarious and included accompanying dance classes (ballet and modern) on the piano, managing the audio/video equipment, creating music tapes for special events, and generally helping out wherever I was needed.  I also managed the department’s final Dance Showcase of the year.

The Dance Department had just undergone a major upgrade.  It had a visionary new director and had recently moved into brand new studios in one of the freshly renovated older buildings on campus.  It had also acquired state of the art sound and lighting equipment expressly for the main studio, which could be used as an experimental performance space.  The Dance Showcase was to take place there.

Because it was the end of the school year, both faculty and students were happy to defer many things to me.  I was equally happy to have a job and be useful.  I designed the posters.  I set up and ran the lights and sound equipment for the rehearsals.  I produced the tapes of recorded music that would be used for most of the showcase works.  Most important, I was the event stage manager.

Early on, one of the teachers asked me to accompany the ballet piece he was choreographing for the showcase.  His work involved about a dozen dancers from one of his classes and he wanted to use a Chopin Waltz as the music.  I was delighted to be asked and agreed readily.  It was not a particularly challenging piece, as Chopin Waltzes go, but was in a difficult key and had some awkward leaps in it.  However the piece came together and I rehearsed with the class for several weeks before the performance.

Needless to say, the day of the performance was hectic. What with getting the studio set up and attending to all of the last minute details, there was not much time for anything else.  I had given little thought to that Chopin Waltz and more to what I needed to do right before and right after it I played it.  I had not even allowed time to warm up properly, much less focus.

And then it was show time.  The audience was seated, the lights were out, and the Dance Showcase began.  Everything was going smoothly.  The sound and light cues went seamlessly.  The dancers were on their game.  It was wonderful.  Then came the ballet piece.  I pre-cued the subsequent number, turned around, and sat down at the piano.  The choreographer gave a nod and I began.

Somehow in the few seconds between setting that sound cue and sitting down on the piano bench, I had grown eight thumbs and my hands had turned to blocks of quartz.  Had someone rearranged all the keys on the piano?  Were those really grapefruits in my hands?  It started badly enough and gradually degenerated into a catastrophe.  I had to stay with it for the sake of the dancers, but Frederic Chopin was scarcely in evidence.  I managed to pull it together enough in the coda to end on the right chord, but the stunned silence followed by weak applause told me just how bad it had been.  Well, that and the audible comment from someone in the audience, “What just happened?”  I slunk back to the sound console to run the next cue, trying to make myself invisible.

Analysis:  This lesson is about role clarity.  Performing is a role with very specific requirements that extend far beyond practice and rehearsal.  The mind needs to be fully engaged and the physical mechanism (e.g., voice, fingers, muscles) limber and ready.  In this case, I missed all of those requirements, and in the process let a lot of people down. It is very difficult to perform multiple roles at the same time, particularly when the requirements of those roles conflict.  This is as true in consulting as it is in the arts or anywhere else.  Lack of role clarity combined with a lack of role focus is a prescription for failure.

LessonNever perform in the same show you are stage managing.


That brings us to the end of this largess of self-revelation.  I am feeling a bit exposed, so allow me to cover up.  The good news is that these three failures are not representative of my total output.  Over the years, I have been reasonably successful at most things to which I have set my hand.  And I have had one or two stellar successes that completely offset the Sanitation Pyre and Dance Showcase incidents. The important thing is that I have never repeated any of these mistakes, and I continue to allow them to inform my work.  The overall lesson is to understand what it is you are working with, always consider the risks and consequences, and never forget to think.

So there it is, Bill. I have finally answered your question.  I may have muffed it nineteen years ago but I think I have nailed it this time, although probably a tad more thoroughly than you had envisioned.  Nevertheless, I think it proves the value of recognizing and assessing our failures as well as our successes.  It makes me wonder, though, how Geoff might have answered it.  I sure wish you had been there for that interview.

And what about those of you who have now read these tales?  Does any one of these lessons resonate especially for you?  Perhaps one of you would like to take a stab at providing your own answer to Bill’s question.