A typical scenario: The topic on the agenda is controversial. The purpose of the meeting is to explore the issue. A few of the 10-24 team members are very vocal, but many are not speaking. The team’s observations are very diverse. Many comments are about topics that aren’t relevant. Most comments aren’t about facts, data or experience. Many comments are straying into opinions about what should be done. What’s a PM to do?
This scene describes a dysfunctional team, especially if you focus on the fact that many members are not speaking. This means that the quiet members probably have insufficient trust in the vocal members. Although facilitator skill can help provide a sense of safety for the quiet members to vocalize their views, the better long term solution is to work on building trust between all team members.
Statements of opinions about what should be done should be delayed until the expansive phase of a decision or discussion is complete (see my post on decision logjams for details). In addition, this expansive phase of the discussion should be focused on fact finding and experience sharing, not convergence discussions (i.e. opinions on actions, decisions, etc.).
I think in this particular case, the facilitator needs to control the discussion by asking questions that lead the speakers back into the proper expansive area, provide all members equal access to the floor (i.e. timed round-robin comments, etc.), and encourage all to share their experiences and/or pertinent facts they have learned about the topic. An occasional request from the facilitator for a speaker to stay on topic might be appropriate.
With such a large group (10-24), the Charette Procedure may be more effective than a consolidated session. This procedure would create perhaps 3 groups of members to brainstorm and discuss the topic. Their ideas and main points would be written down and at the appointed time, each document is shifted to another group to build upon, refine, and prioritize. Once complete, the full team can review the resulting documents.
In extreme examples of this situation, the Delphi Method can be used, in which real-time meeting interaction is replaced with facilitator-moderated and anonymous written discussion. This method is time consuming and, in many cases, is a band-aid for a dysfunctional team that must produce immediate results.
Throughout especially the first month or so of meetings, the facilitator should engage in activities designed to build vulnerability-based trust in the team. One key activity in the project kick-off meeting is the round-robin sharing of one thing about each member that the other members don’t know. Another activity (borrowed from Patrick Lencioni) is to ask each member to explain three things: where they grew up, how many kids were in their family, and what was the most difficult or important challenge of their childhood. Another activity that builds trust is the behavioral characteristics exercise described in my previous post on missing assignments (Missed Project Assignments: What's a PM To Do?). Sharing each other’s behavior profile through something like Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) can also build trust and personal understanding, especially if it is completed is a group setting.