I got to thinking recently about a time I spent a half day observing a visioning exercise. I was excited, at first, to have the opportunity to learn a thing or two. The people leading the session have worked with lots of civic groups and local governments over the years.

I saw, though, that at the end of the session few participants were any closer to a real vision than when they began. Why? Because, while the facilitators did all the steps by the book, they were not attentive to what was happening in the room. People had tuned out, so everything was a”going through the motions” exercise.

The consultants had fallen into a trap I can really sympathize with (since I do presentations myself, and it’s happened to me): they’d lost the room and couldn’t quite get it back. So they fell back on their slide deck and just got through it.

This got me wondering about how often  such sessions unfold this way. How well are civic engagement consultants really doing their job? Because, while process is important — how things get executed is equally (if not more) important.

For many people in the civic sector, this is not necessarily welcome news, because execution of small group discussions can be a definite bottleneck. Some might even object that with the right process or approach, the skill of the person in the room should not matter. But, in my experience, the skills of the person in front of the room do matter.

(Just as important is a good match between the task and skills — is it a conversation, a speech, a workshop, a focus group? Not everyone has the right skills for each.)

The good news is that such skills can be taught and improved. But It can be painful. I say this from experience. It takes the oppenness to hear negative feedback without dismissing its source, the courage to fail publicly, and the perseverence to try again.