Category Archives: Facilitation

Facilitation Category

Why I don’t hold a pen: The perils of pen holding

sharpie-flip-chart-blueI don’t hold a pen when facilitating.

The only thing I do with a pen is, when asked to do so by the participants, to put a flash mark on a card on which they want clarification or over which they disagree. The event is their event, so all contributions are written by the participants and I would never change that.


The criteria of a facilitated event

Let’s have a look at five criteria of a facilitated event and the impact of the facilitator using a pen.

The first criterion is that the focus is live issues. Now, those who know most about the issues faced by the unit or company are those who are actually engaged in the work. I do not have their knowledge of the company, nor do I have their experience of the culture. This means the participants must take ownership of the process.

Second, all contributions are accepted. Our job, as facilitators, is to demonstrate that every single contribution matters, regardless of apparent superficiality or humour or spelling or grammar – let the group sort that out. Let the participants assume responsibility for the success of the activity.

Third, not only are all contributions accepted but all contributions are equal. Regardless of seniority, ability to shout, velocity of your vehicle – your contribution will be considered. Standing at the front, holding a pen, is about power and inequality and that is contrary to the philosophy of facilitation.

Fourth, ownership of contributions and discussion is with the participants. Ownership is firmly given to the group from the start – it’s their event, their issues. Every person has a pen and access to cards. Individuals will see their contributions, in their own handwriting, visible to all, posted on the boards. They will see how each of their cards, and those of their colleagues, contribute to the progress of the group.

Fifth, a well facilitated event is phased, participants see progress from the start to the final agenda item: action. The output is action to which all have contributed and to which all are committed – they have created their own future.

The impact of the interfering facilitator

If you hold a pen and write contributions from the group, there is a temptation to edit or paraphrase. You may feel that they have used too many words, it’s unclear to you, it sounds like jargon, you can’t see the relevance. This is not our responsibility. It is arrogant to think that we know better. If there is any editing or paraphrasing, it should be done by the participants because they own the contributions.

Altering in any way, for whatever reason, something a participant wishes to contribute is contrary to the principles of facilitation. It disempowers the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAindividuals and it elevates the facilitator beyond their authority. Remember: there is no higher authority than the group.

If an individual has strong feelings about something, writing it themselves, in their own words, is very satisfying. If you then suggest editing that contribution, they will not be happy. Also, you risk losing the vivid, powerful and colloquial nature of their idea.

A final point on the facilitator damaging the process by interfering. If you alter an individual’s contribution in any way, for any reason, then everyone will follow your example – you will have lost the commitment of the group.

That’s why I don’t carry a pen. And don’t you be tempted either.

Re-establishing facilitation as an effective activity: 1. The current state

The big questions

I feel I need to start this blog by addressing the central issue: what exactly is facilitation?

I am writing a book on the subject, so have recently been researching what others think. One frequent lament of facilitators is: “What do you say when people ask you: ‘What exactly do you DO?’”

And the next most frequent question is: “How can I convince senior managers of the benefits of facilitation?”

The current state

I agree that it may be difficult to explain what facilitation is and how to sell it. But, it seems to me, those asking these questions, do not themselves understand what facilitation really means. No wonder they fail to convince other people.

For example, many books and articles on facilitation start in identical fashion – by going to the dictionary. Dictionaries do have a purpose – they can help when learning a foreign language. But trying to establish the meaning of a concept from a dictionary is like claiming to understand a person’s life and character by reading their tombstone.

So, what does the dictionary say? The definition you will generally find is “to make it easy, possible or less difficult.”

Not only is this unhelpful, but it is misleading, if not palpably wrong. In no way does this explain facilitation. You might as well say “I’m good at making tea.” Focusing on “making it easy”, appears to me to place the emphasis too much on support and not enough emphasis on challenge: avoiding disagreement and providing comfortable chairs, good pens, still and fizzy bottled water, mints, soft music….

You think I’m joking?

One facilitation blog I contribute to, asked a question about what a facilitator should look for when selecting a venue. After a string of suggestions, one person responded with:

Hey everyone, I am surprised no one mentioned anything about toilets! Have spacious, clean and well ventilated toilets does make a difference, and significantly add to the comfort of the atmosphere.

Great posts up there, can’t wait to read more.

And this is how the word is used:

“Next week I am facilitating a time management course”
“I have to facilitate a coaching session with someone tomorrow”
“I am thinking of facilitating a career move.”

Books on the topic refer to “learners” and “trainees”; to “training” and “presentations.” Using participatory techniques does not make your intervention facilitation.

These references are to a process that does not focus on the work itself – not the organisation’s services, staff, clients, suppliers, nor its procedures. I am going to be blunt: this process remains superficial. It is pretend, not real. It misrepresents the role of facilitation.

So, this is where I find facilitation positioned: spread so thinly over any human activity involving communication and decisions, that it has lost all meaning. No wonder people struggle to explain what they do; no wonder they fail to sell the benefits to managers.

Before presenting my ideas to a wider audience in a book, I want to explore them here, on this blog and with your help.

My aim is to re-establish the central purpose and reputation of this effective and powerful activity, to distinguish it from other processes such as training, coaching, running a meeting or acting as an MC at a darts competition.

Re-establishing facilitation as an effective activity: 2. So, what is facilitation?

My experience of facilitation

To start with, let me tell you what my experience of facilitation feels like.

At the beginning of an assignment we are all nervous and excited – none of us knows exactly what will happen. Because, the participants are being asked about live business issues directly related to their work.

The participants recognise quickly that what I said we would do, we will indeed do – everyone gets to contribute, disagreements are managed, the most voluble are controlled, they will be honest and we will create something which they deeply identify with.

If you were to peek through the window during one of these sessions, you would be surprised. Groups of people – some standing, some sitting – cluster in front of large boards with brown paper on. There is an unmistakable air of energy and enthusiasm as they work with cards of different colours and shapes.

Everyone is alert, there is lots of noise – it looks likes organised chaos. But you would be looking at an event carefully designed to achieve specific objectives – the most important of which is to make the individuals and the organisation more effective.

Let’s jump to the end of an event. There you will see great relief and celebration that it has worked as promised. Indeed, participants recognise they have achieved more than they have ever achieved before in any conventional meeting: analysis, collaboration and agreement.

But, most important, they have created business plans to which they are all committed and which will make them and their organisation more effective.

What is facilitation?

Facilitation addresses two fundamental issues.

One, managers and management teams need access to up to date, accurate information to make the best decisions. Two, the more you involve people in the analysis of their situation and the subsequent decisions, the more effective will be the implementation of those decisions.

How does this occur? I feel there are five components.

1.  Focus First, the focus of facilitation is live issues – real disputes, business questions, organisational concerns.

2. Output Second, the conclusion of every event results in business plans, action to which all have contributed and to which all are committed. The client creates their own values and future. And the actions agreed are complete and self-sustaining, not reliant on external follow up by me.

3. Planning The more rigorous the planning, the tighter the agenda and the more effective the intervention. Planning involves three stages. First, a thorough analysis of the situation with the sponsor and at least one other senior manager separately.

Many managers feel participation is risky, uncontrollable, inconclusive and time wasting – a bit like a normal meeting you might say. If the most senior manager is not prepared to listen to their colleagues and staff, if they do not have trust in me or the process, I suggest they adopt an alternative approach and without me.

In this first stage I act as an analyst, defining with the client their requirements, agreeing what they want to achieve. For example: rescue a project, formulate a new business strategy, redesign the unit’s processes, improve customer service.

The second stage of planning is design – this is where I become an architect. I define and agree with the client the overall aim and specific objectives. An overall aim is vital to focus people and give clarity to our effort.

I take the overall aim and break it into constituent parts, each part an objective and a corresponding agenda item. This phased approach to a facilitated event means participants recognise how each of their comments contributes and how each agenda item leads to the next. They also recognise how each agenda item then builds towards achieving the overall aim and the ultimate action plans.

The third stage of planning is my personal preparation – liaison with the venue, collecting names and numbers, sending the agendas and briefs to all participants.

4. Approach All contributions are treated equally which means everyone is engaged. An event in which one person, or a small number, dominates does not meet my criteria of a facilitated event.

Through open communication, the real issues are identified and explored – including disagreements – and everyone is involved in developing alternative actions without abandoning their own points of view.

5. Process The event itself is driven by the process, not the facilitator. The more robust the process, the less visible the facilitator. I don’t carry a pen, I just do what the group tells me to do.

CitrixThere are no tables, only chairs. This means there is no territory and no barriers.

I use large boards and the participants write their contributions on cards of different shape and colour – the process is visual. All contributions are visible and readable by everyone all the time. The boards gradually fill the space; they keep the participants focused and remind them of what they have achieved.

I ensure the room has plenty of space so that all the boards remain visible. Having plenty of space also allows small teams to congregate where they like and not interfere with other groups.

BoardAt the start of each agenda item the participants work in small groups to allow maximum airtime for every single person. There is a marvellous moment when they move their chairs, sit knee to knee and then burst into discussion – it sounds like everyone is talking at once. This kind of energy is infectious and self-sustaining.

Once they have finished writing their cards, the next stage is to bring everyone together, in plenary, to share and discuss all the contributions. The process here is to post the cards on the boards and cluster them according to their content. The group then agrees a descriptive heading for each cluster.

The final agenda item of each assignment is for the participants to create an action plan – such as a strategy document, a business plan, improvement projects. Each of one these plans contains key elements such as objectives, owners, resources required, dates and first step.

I say one final thing at the end. I tell them that they must communicate immediately an update to anyone connected to this initiative. When these people come to work tomorrow, they must see some indication of what we have achieved.


My approach has been proved over 25 years in assignments such as organisational strategy, organisational development (BPR, performance management), customer service, public consultations, company mergers, project planning and project reviews.

This has been in many industries, in different countries and in different languages – so I have seen plenty of examples of what works and what does not.

My impression is that the definition of facilitation has been diluted and, as a consequence, the current attitude to facilitation in organisations is tepid. Yet my experience is that it can be a deeply developmental experience for individuals and organisations, a powerful and transformational force.