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Facilitation : the benefits 3

Self reliance and speed

This is the third article of a three part exploration of the benefits of facilitation

The client is self-reliant

The output from every facilitation assignment is an action plan.  Each plan of action is unique but, whatever its content, the responsibility for the plan is with the client and not with the facilitator.  Part of the process of the event itself is to transfer ownership from the facilitator to the client, to make the client autonomous and self-reliant.

The client needs to understand this from the start.  They don’t have life jackets, no safety ropes, no parachutes – they are responsible, this is it.

What is the facilitator responsible for?  The facilitator is responsible for defining requirements with the client – the overall aim and the specific objectives.  The facilitator is also responsible, with the client, for the design of the event and the structure of the output.  And then the facilitator is responsible for managing the process itself.

But – the facilitator is not responsible for the content.  It seems to me that a facilitator should walk backwards as soon as they are in front of the participants.  Yes, we are very much present at the centre of the discussions, but the focus is on the participants and their contributions, not on us.  We are transparent.

The experts in a facilitated event are the participants.  They know the company, its customers and suppliers; they are part of the culture.  They know intimately what is happening.  They may have strong feelings and they will have up to the minute examples to back up their assertions.  It is not our role to interfere with this experience.

This approach is different from the traditional approach of a consultant in which this person is seen as an expert.   They are listened to, their advice is sought and followed.  Why ignore them?  There are occasions when you need an expert but, in this instance, the facilitator’s expertise is in the process, not the content.

So, how is self-reliance a benefit?

Well, if the client realises it is up to them, they accept the responsibility. They embark on a journey of self-determination – this creates a great deal of energy and urgency.  The real issues are raised, discussed and prioritised.

The actions they create to address the priority issues are understood by all, because all have contributed, and the commitment to enhanced effectiveness is great.

Self-reliance gives the client confidence – they know they can do it – and the plans don’t fall over when the facilitator departs.

Speed

Clients have frequently been amazed at the end of an event, saying to me “I really didn’t believe you when you said we would do it in one day.”

What can you achieve in one day?  Strategy, project start up, project review, BPR, customer service, performance management, training needs analysis….

These initiatives need careful planning by the facilitator including consultation before the event with key personnel to help design the approach.  But the engine room of the initiative is undertaken in one day.  Everybody – a team, senior managers, service providers, clients – whether it is six or one hundred, come together in one room for one day and they leave with a plan.

Let’s take a specific assignment such as an IT strategy.

The traditional approach involves a consultant or the IT Manager visiting the major stakeholders and asking what their IT requirements are.  If IT has a less than glowing reputation, responses may not be very helpful.

The consultant or IT Manager arranges meetings, not all of which may be successful or, even, do not happen.  They listen to complaints.  They make copious notes.  They send out questionnaires; some of them are returned.

Then, how do you compare the importance and urgency of one manager’s contributions with those of other managers, or their veracity?

All participants in this process may be tempted to skew the findings and the focus is often technical.

The consultant or IT manager then works hard, late at night, to prepare a report and presentation with fancy charts.  At this presentation half the managers disagree with half the findings and the end result is low commitment to a plan that is out of date, too technical and seen as not addressing their real issues.

This process takes months.

In contrast, using the approach of facilitation, I get all the stakeholders together at the same time to focus on effectiveness.

Similar to the traditional approach, I would start by meeting each of the senior managers separately.  The purpose is to hear of the satisfaction with previous strategies, the current situation, their potential requirements and, finally, their hopes and fears with regard to a day’s facilitated event.

Then, I would gather all the senior managers together for one day and I would ask them how they think the IT unit could make them more effective – there are other questions they need to consider, but this effectiveness question is at the heart of the event.

This approach has many benefits.  If you lead with a question on effectiveness, the participants focus on their work issues and their future, rather than the past and blame.  They are forced to think about their own plans and opportunities rather than the attraction of new technology.

They share their concerns and aspirations so that any action agreed is coherent.  A clear perspective emerges because they are allowed to articulate their feelings and appreciate the ideas of others.  They are committed to the actions because they have created the plans themselves.

And, finally, the output is on their desk the next morning with a reminder of what they said they would do that next day so momentum is not lost.

Elapsed time using the approach of facilitation?  Three weeks.

Traditional approach?  Four months?

Facilitation : the benefits 2

Facilitation as a developmental exercise

 As a result of the participants’ analysis and discussion in a well facilitated assignment, actions are put in place that increase the overall effectiveness of both the individuals, their unit and the organisation as a whole.

This article explores the benefits of facilitation, but focuses on the development of the individuals – what new attitudes and behaviours the participants learn and will continue to use having participated in a facilitated event.

Trust

In a facilitated event, we are all working together within a strict structure towards goals that have been well defined.  Everyone knows why they are there, where they are in the process, how to contribute and what will happen next.

Certainty in the process creates trust – individuals are more open to the contributions others can make.  This encourages the development of ideas, the building of discussion and an atmosphere that encourages listening.

Listen

Individuals learn to listen better in the deepest sense of the word.  They realise that, if they want their point of view heard they, in turn, are expected to listen to the point of view of others.  You will see participants increasingly seeking out what others think.  They spend less effort in defending their own opinion or denigrating the others’ point of view or, even, personal attacks on others.

Individuals recognise quickly that all contributions will be accepted and none are discarded.  They respect the principle that they all have a right and an equal opportunity to express their ideas.

Your idea may not be pursued by the group, not because it is bad or wrong, but because the group agrees that other ideas take priority.  It’s the principle of “You don’t have to blow my candle out to make yours appear brighter.”

All participants have the opportunity to contribute in a way in which they feel comfortable because the event uses a variety of processes: small group, creativity, write on a card, plenary, controlled discussion, analysis, prioritise, plan.

It is a building process and all can see how every individual suggestion contributes to the end result.  This is a liberating experience – for most people, normal meetings (normal? ha!) are a fight for air time or to conduct assassination attempts.

Disagree but collaborate

You will have experienced many discussions that adopt the typical binary approach:

  • for/against
  • you/me
  • right/wrong
  • good/bad.

Views become increasingly polarised, stances entrenched.  People refuse to move, they concentrate on criticising the viewpoint of the other.  What started as a discussion, an exploration, has descended into irreconcilable differences and argument.

A facilitated event that engenders trust, listening and the acceptance of disagreement, leads to collaboration.  Participants work together towards a shared objective.  They build toward that and are prepared to acknowledge differences but seek similarities.

A well facilitated event is a model of good behaviour and demonstrates the creation of a basic human group such as a family, neighbourhood or team.

Topic leakage

Having a strict structure and a closely controlled process means participants are focused on one topic at a time.

One of the greatest faults with meetings is topic leakage – discussion heading away from the current topic and onto a separate issue.

Having a strong agenda, with clearly worded questions, clear objectives and a sharp facilitator, prevents this.  Experiencing this disciplined approach improves future meetings.  Participants become aware of the focus needed to participate in a satisfying event.

Analysis

If the process has certainty and focus, this aids analysis.  Each agenda item has a separate objective eg idea generation is separate from evaluation; “our strengths” separate from “what we are less effective at.”

You should expect some finger pointing, complaining and blaming – these are the norm in most organisations.  But the design of the event encourages people to focus on facts and analysis.

Participants appreciate that the end result will be action.  For this action to be effective, they need to analyse and agree exactly what is happening.

Confidence and responsibility

The facilitator builds the confidence of the individuals by accepting them for who they are and where they are.  All participants and all their contributions are valued.

Participants see how their ideas contribute to the identification of priority issues and then work on those.  They recognise that they have addressed the items that are the most important and will have the greatest impact on their effectiveness.

Finally, no one is telling the participants what to do; the facilitator is there to provide a structure and a process to help them to take the responsibility to create their own plans to enhance their effectiveness.

The focus is their live issues – not theory, not case studies, not role plays.  Yet, the participants have learned new attitudes and practised new behaviours that transfer directly to their work.

In short, they have created their own future.

Facilitation : the benefits 1

Focus, live issues and output

“What’s the benefit?” is a common question.  Why should we buy a particular product or service, why pursue one course of action in preference to another?

When people ask this question of facilitation there is a temptation to respond by describing the features.  For example, in a well facilitated event, everyone contributes and the aim is action.  And the reply comes back:  “So what?  Aren’t those the aims of every meeting?” (yes, but we accept those aims are rarely achieved).

A facilitated event is more than a well run meeting, it is an activity that is substantially different and far more effective.

So – what do you achieve in a well facilitated event that you do not get from any other process?

If you want to know – ask

To manage an organisation effectively, you need up to date and accurate information.  And if you want that information about your organisation and its performance, to know exactly what is happening, it is best to ask those nearest to the situation.

This is central to facilitation: asking those nearest to the situation

This means that the focus is live issues.  Let’s examine each of these two components: “focus” first and then “live issues.”

Focus

A well facilitated event is carefully planned with an overall aim and specific objectives.  Each specific objective will be one agenda item.  This means that participants know exactly the purpose of the agenda item that they are working on, how it fits with other agenda items and how each step moves them towards the ultimate output.

It’s like a series of gates that we all pass through.  We can’t open a gate to proceed to the next agenda item until we have successfully completed the current item.

The agenda shows the participants when to work in small groups, when to work in plenary and the specific purpose of each of these two activities.  They, all know at any one time what they are doing and why.

Live issues

It is true that the aim of meetings is live issues but that is not generally apparent.  Two common complaints are that meetings meander and many attendees struggle to get their voice heard.  The result is that the real issues are not explored and, often, not even raised.

In contrast, a facilitated event is rooted in reality, participants identify exactly what is going on – or, going wrong.

It is not training, not theory and you are not being told what to do by a consultant who has just parachuted in.  You address issues that you are facing at work – real disputes and disagreements, business questions, customer issues, organisational concerns and, usually, communication.

Working on live issues leads to two benefits: one hard and the other soft.

The hard benefit is that decision making is of a higher quality because it is rooted in reality.  The plans that the participants create, hit the priority areas – those issues that will have the greatest impact on your effectiveness.

The soft benefit is a people benefit.  Individuals feel valued.  They have been asked; management and colleagues have listened.  They have an individual sense of personal achievement and a collective sense of connection with their colleagues.

Facilitated events are a model of good behaviour.  Barriers are removed because communication is opened up horizontally and vertically.  Trust is built.  Staff are more committed to overall plans and direction, confident that they are able to have a say in what happens.

Output

The overall aim of a facilitated event is to make the individuals, their unit and the whole organisation more effective.

Participants arrive knowing that the end result will be plans that they are expected to create before they leave.  This is made clear in the aims and the agenda which are published well before the event so everyone can prepare.

Whether the facilitated event is the company strategy, a project review, process redefinition, or a training requirements definition, the output is always an action plan.  This action plan will have objectives, milestones, dates, owners, resources – everything complete to enhance effectiveness.

The process of an event gives every one the opportunity to contribute.  Each single person has an opportunity to put forward their ideas and they see how those ideas join with the ideas of their colleagues.

Every contribution is accepted.  Contributions are judged, by the group, against the aims of the event and how well they contribute to their effectiveness.  It is an approach based on pragmatism and effectiveness, not on seniority or length of service or loudness of voice.

Further, a well facilitated event manages disagreement in a constructive way.  Participants accept that there will be disagreement and acknowledge the right of others to hold a different point of view from themselves.  This is deeply satisfying for a number of reasons.

Participants have a feeling that, not only have they created something, but they have created order out of chaos – a significant achievement.  This leads to a strong connection between them, a sense of belonging.  Ideas have been shared, they have been listened to and the end result is action that benefits all.

Because everyone has contributed all the way through, step by step, everyone is committed to the action.  “So what?” you might ask again.

It means the plans are rooted in reality.  It means the plans that have been agreed will be actioned, because those who are responsible for the execution of the plans are those who have created them.

Further, it means that the aims of the individuals, their unit and the whole organisation are aligned.  You should expect a well facilitated event to deliver what it promises – everyone will be more effective.

From the beginning, the participants understood that they would have the opportunity to create their own future.  And, they have done so.