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.
There 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.
At 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.