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.

Metaphors for new management: Mountain climbing

All climbers start pretty much from the same place. But the route you take can be different. You may ascend by a popular route such as a less demanding ridge. You might undertake a vertical wall or even tackle a route that has never previously been undertaken. You may go with a guide, on a rope of two or solo – depending on your ability.

Climbers are generally very good at choosing a route appropriate to their ability – usually at the top end of their ability. The point is, there is room on every mountain for those who wish to be there.

In contrast, the traditional organisational culture is built like a ladder, with many rungs. Little room for soloists or quick ascents here. Time must be spent on each rung before moving up. Investment is made in resources to keep both you and the rungs in place.

Individuals put in effort to reach for the rung above them. The longer you stay on the ladder, the higher you get. The higher the rung, the higher the grade, the bigger the office, the more important you become. But, because the organisational ladder narrows sharply as it reaches upwards, there is less and less room. The top becomes exclusive.

Some people, faced with all these rungs and the constrictions above them, just give up from the start. They attempt a few rungs and then get exhausted. This confirms the view those higher up have of them as “hands” or “drones”, demotivated and listless.

And so the culture is perpetuated.

So – what to do? Changing the culture of an entire organisation is difficult, but you can do something where you are with what you have got – your own team or unit.

One suggestion that I have regularly pursued with clients is to ask the simple question:

If we are to be more effective, we need to….

This identifies your key result areas, your KRAs, those activities that are the highest priority to guarantee your effectiveness. Each one of these becomes an improvement project with owners (not the boss) and individuals committed to a future that they have created.

Organisational bowling

Have you noticed how many organisations undertake a very strange form of ten-pin bowling? Organisational ten-pin bowling shares many elements of the conventional game. For example, you and your colleagues are arranged in teams and are expected to be loyal and energetic. You are allocated a lane in which to perform. You are given targets (the pins) and resources (a ball) with which to hit those targets.

But organisational bowling differs in two major respects from the conventional game.

The blanket

First of all, there is a blanket draped over the lane, about halfway down. This means you can’t see what you are aiming at.

Now, you are pretty sure that ten-pin bowling involves ten pins because everybody says so. It’s in the rules, there are numerous books on the subject. More than that, the nice person who interviewed you for the job promised that everything possible would be done to help you be a very successful bowler. That, you assumed, included a clear view of your target.

So your guess is that behind that blanket there are indeed a number of pins that you have to knock over. And you also know that knocking over as many as possible is pretty much the aim of this activity.

The blanket perplexes you at first. But this seems to be the version of the game played around here. So don’t rock the boat, keep your head down and just get on with bowling.

You chuck your first ball down. It goes with some velocity and you watch it with satisfaction and anticipation as it speeds on its way straight down the middle. Then, it disappears behind the blanket. You stand there. You see nothing and hear nothing. So you pick up another ball and bowl that one. Your manager appears. “What the hell are you doing? Pull your finger out! You’ve got to do better than that. The other side are miles ahead.”

Something appears to be wrong, though you are not sure exactly what. You bowl a few more balls. You try pretty hard. You experiment. You chuck a few with more force and some of these end up in the gutter. You try less force and concentrate on accuracy, hoping the ball has enough momentum to cause damage somewhere down there at the end of your lane.

Your manager reappears. Oh dear, could this be more bad news? “Terrific, terrific,” he says. “Keep it up, well done. Must fly – got to go to another lane.”


The second difference between organisational ten-pin bowling and the conventional game is teamwork. You know you are in a team because you’ve been told so – the person who interviewed you for the job was at their most earnest when they talked about teamwork. But, there is scant evidence to suggest that you are in a team.

You spot people going to the bar to get a drink or a sandwich. Maybe they are in the same team as you. It would be nice to find out a bit more about these other people. Do they have a blanket too? Do they prefer light balls or heavy balls? What shoes do they wear? What scores have they been getting?

But no, nobody appears to view gathering in the refreshment area as a productive activity. The gatherings are subdued and fleeting. As soon as three or four people congregate, a manager appears and people melt away. Obviously these are all dedicated bowlers. Serious bowling is going on around here somewhere.

You return to your lane with more questions. How am I doing? How is the team doing? Does anyone keep the score? Could the others share their expertise to help me do better? And do managers spend more time checking who goes to the bar and the loo than….. well, I don’t know. What do managers do?

So there you are – organisational ten-pin bowling. A curious activity with no objectives, no feedback on individual performance, no sharing of ideas but high on strong management control.

engage // collaborate // commit