General Facilitation

If you have ever been responsible for ensuring that a group achieves an outcome – a decision, a goal, a plan, or resolution of an issue or conflict – then chances are you have already encountered the facilitative role. In essence, the facilitator is the keeper of the process – designing and leading a coherent approach to ensure that the group discusses issues thoroughly and reaches decisions that are supported and understood by all group members.

The key characteristic distinguishing facilitation from other types of leadership is that the outcomes –specific decisions and action plans – are NEVER pre-determined in a facilitative setting. Rather, the group uses the process and activities provided by the facilitator to unlock expertise, ensure thorough discussion, stay focused, and reach decisions that, ideally, are better than those any individual could have come up with alone. The goal of facilitation is ALWAYS a synergistic outcome.

The use of facilitation has increased as more and more people discover that putting a group of people together and telling them they’re responsible for some outcome does NOT automatically lead to a good result – or, in fact, to any result at all! Not surprising, really, when you consider the number of things in play any time a group of people come together on a task – group dynamics, power differences, individual preferences and priorities, variances in understanding and skill, different types of technical expertise – the list goes on and on.

By establishing a role – that of the facilitator – focused primarily on thinking through how the group can best work together to achieve its objectives and on guiding and monitoring the process, and by ensuring that the chosen facilitator has the combination of skill, background, and expertise to fulfill this role effectively, most groups can dramatically improve their outcomes – and help lead their organizations to better results, faster.

As keeper of the process, it is the facilitator’s job to ensure that a group is fully engaged and working effectively toward a defined outcome. In fulfilling this role, it is critical that the facilitator function as a neutral party, even if he or she is actually a member of the team (or even the team leader!). A group that feels – correctly or incorrectly – that the facilitator is attempting to steer it toward a particular outcome will feel manipulated and will either disengage or undermine the process. The facilitator in this situation will lose the group’s trust, making it nearly impossible for that person to function as facilitator in the future.

So what are the steps and tasks involved? There are many. Among the most critical are:

  • Ensuring that the desired outcome(s) or deliverable(s) for the group’s meeting are crystal clear and realistic;
  • Understanding the group’s history, dynamics, culture, and working preferences in sufficient detail to design a process most likely to be successful;
  • Designing a process to help the group achieve the desired outcome in the allotted time;
  • Leading the process effectively, ensuring that group members stay on track and remain engaged;
  • Managing time, group dynamics, and group and individual behavior, providing effective feedback and interventions when necessary;
  • Identifying and naming assumptions and conflicts so that the group can deal with them effectively;
  • As appropriate (and desired), drawing on his or her own content expertise to add to the possibilities the group can consider — without sacrificing his or her neutrality;
  • Working effectively with the group leader and/or session sponsor before, during, and after the facilitated session;
  • Helping the group work effectively toward consensus in key decisions; and
  • Ensuring that session decisions, outcomes, action plans, and next steps are clearly identified and understood by all session participants.

All in all, a pretty tall order! As with many things, thorough preparation is key. Professional facilitators often devote 2-5 times the length of the actual facilitated session to preparation and design, in order to avoid pitfalls and ensure the highest possible level of synergy for the group involved. With proper preparation, the actual session can flow seamlessly from activity to activity and deliver high-impact results for the group and the organization.

The decision of whether to use a facilitator for your next group meeting, workshop, retreat, or conference should be based on several factors: your leadership beliefs; the group’s history of effectiveness and interaction; the importance/value of the meeting deliverables; and your desired level of participation in the meeting.

Your Leadership Beliefs
In order for facilitation to be effective with your group, you MUST believe (and group members must believe that you believe) that:

  • Together, we are smarter than any one of us;
  • Great ideas can come from anyone, regardless of rank or position; and
  • People (especially your people!) are generally capable, intelligent, and inclined to do the right thing.

Outside facilitation is probably a bad fit for your meeting if you believe that:

  • Your ideas are the right ones;
  • Only senior-level people have good ideas; and
  • People (especially your people!) are lazy, stupid, and inclined to shirk responsibility.

Using a facilitator in the latter case will be a waste of time, effort, and money.

The Group’s History
A second consideration is the group’s ability to self-manage. That is, has the group demonstrated the ability to self-facilitate, including ensuring inclusion of all points of view, sharing leadership, surfacing and resolving conflict, and reaching consensus? If so, you are dealing with a highly-developed work group or team that may not require facilitation for any but the most critical sessions.

Another consideration along these lines is the group’s history in dealing with this issue. If you are meeting to resolve a conflict, explore an issue, or make a decision the group has tried unsuccessfully to deal with in the past, you should strongly consider using a group facilitator.

The Importance and Value of the Meeting’s Deliverables
Face time is expensive. Any time you are bringing a group of people together to work on a problem, develop a plan, or make some other kind of decision, the costs (both real and opportunity) are high.

It stands to reason, then, that you will mostly be using a face-to-face meeting format when the deliverables are of high importance and potential value. If that’s the case, use a facilitator.

Simply put, this is not the time to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Using a facilitator vastly increases your chances of reaching high-quality output. Why not give your meeting the best possible chance of success?

Your Desired Level of Participation
Another consideration is your role. It is likely that you will want to actively participate in the content of a high-importance meeting. Bear in mind that it is nearly impossible to be both an engaged participant and a competent facilitator at the same time. Use your expertise where it will do the most good.

The bottom line? Using a professional facilitator can deliver high value to you and your organization. Just be sure you’re using the right person for the right meeting – and for the right reasons.

Choosing Facilitators

Group facilitation should be the person’s primary occupation, not a side-line business or secondary focus.

It should be clear that the person takes the facilitation profession seriously and has the educational and work experience to be a credible facilitator in your group setting. To be able to control the flow of events in your next meeting, your selected facilitator must possess the gravitas to be considered a peer by your meeting participants. For most organizations, this means the facilitator needs a strong business background, in addition to solid facilitation skills.

The person should understand the pros and cons of meetings in general as well as specific meeting formats. He or she should demonstrate the ability to work with you to establish meeting objectives, explore format options, create a detailed agenda and navigate the inevitable “bumps in the road” in every group setting. Above all, the facilitator must clearly understand that the purpose of meetings is to create synergy – anything less is a waste of time and money.

Meetings are not abstractions. They are people coming together to (presumably) make a decision, exchange information, make a plan, or achieve an outcome. The operative word here is people. Does the person understand the complexities of inter-personal relationships and group dynamics? Does he or she understand how to recognize and react to the wide range of behaviors that they are likely to encounter? Does the person have the self-confidence, skills and courage to confront disruptive behaviors?

Extraordinarily productive meetings don’t just happen. They take a great deal of preparation and planning. How does the person propose planning for your important meeting? Does he or she offer to talk with meeting participants in advance? Does the person work with you to create a detailed meeting agenda, one that clearly outlines specific process tools to be employed and why? What post-meeting follow-up services does he or she suggest? Are you confident that no meeting detail will be left to chance?

Every meeting is different. So every meeting requires a different mix of process tools to achieve optimum outcomes. Is the person well-versed in a wide range of process tools and solutions? Or does he or she seem to suggest that “their process” just happens to be the right answer for you? Remember the story about every problem looking like a nail a person who only has a hammer.

Here’s where things get interesting. Does the person charge “by the hour,” which will discourage adequate preparatory conversations? Does the person charge an exorbitant rate relative to value provided and/or separately for pre-meeting and post-meeting work? Do you consider the proposed fee to reasonable in light of anticipated added value? Be sure you understand the basis for the professional fee being charged and what it includes.