By Mujtaba Mirza
It is not always easy to get the most out of a group of people. Whether for a single meeting or a group project there is always the risk a group will not be able to work together to achieve their goal or realize their potential.
Meetings and formal gatherings are not always well planned and often have to deal with the pressure of time and lack of attendance. Everyone has been to a bad meeting where the discussion strays far from the topic, where too much time is spent discussing things already agreed upon while issues are not addressed, discussions that goes on for too long, where one or two people take over the discussion, and it feels like very few results are achieved. If the meeting was facilitated by a professional facilitator though, it would be a different story.
The first change you would notice is that it would no longer be a “meeting” in the typical sense but more of an interactive and engaging a session or workshop where the facilitator employs a range of tools and techniques to create a defined structure and process. Based on an agreed-upon purpose, a facilitator will guide participants to achieve a certain type of goal, for example a solution to a problem, a decision, or a plan (strategic or operational). The facilitator will remain neutral about the content of the meeting, while guiding participants throughout the process. A facilitator would skillfully draw out contributions and perspectives from the participants to enable them to reach the desired outcomes, and to ensure all voices are heard. Meetings are a fact of life in every organization and leaders should be prepared to make them as dynamic and productive as possible.
What is facilitation and what exactly does a facilitator do?
The definition of the word facilitate is “to make easy” or “ease a process.” What a facilitator does is plan, guide, and manage a group to ensure that the group’s objectives are met effectively, with structure, clear thinking, good participation, and buy-in from everyone present. The key responsibility here is to create appropriate processes and a safe environment in which they can flourish, and so help the group reach a successful decision, solution, or conclusion. An apt analogy to explain what a facilitator does is that of a midwife. The task of the midwife is to make it easy for the delivery, taking ownership of the process, and knowing when to intervene and help.
Before a facilitator designs the group process, he or she meets with the client sponsor (or group leader), and other key participants, to understand their needs, desired outcomes, the participants, and session logistics. A facilitator will then design and plan the group process, and select the tools that best help the group move towards that outcome as set out during the client consultation, including what the final product may look like, fair participation opportunities and that perspectives are heard to build shared understanding to optimize outcomes that can be supported by all. The facilitator will also record the action items and decisions so they can be properly dealt with afterwards. A good facilitator will help the group take ownership and accountability for themselves.
Good facilitators always include some of these basic components for all meetings:
- Using breaks in a creative manner in order to maintain group energy levels;
- Frequently mixing up the groups across functions and departments to encourage diversity;
- Adding physical movement to minimize prolonged sitting;
- Using flipcharts, brainstorming or other fun, engaging and purposeful activities to maximize interaction;
- Different approaches and techniques, such as a technique called Solutions Focus, which involves helping groups focus on what’s working instead of what’s not working, or a method called Six Thinking Hats. There is a library of diverse methods and techniques in the international facilitation community. An experienced facilitator knows when and how to employ the right one, suited for the purpose and the participants.
Myth 1: Facilitation is another name for training
The most common misconception about facilitation is using the term interchangeably with training. Training has content associated with it. Training is intended to transfer knowledge and skills, so a participant is able to perform a specific task competently. On the other hand, facilitation aims to use the knowledge, ideas, wisdom and experience of the participants in the room to help the participants perform tasks collectively or helping them achieve certain identified and agreed to outcomes.
Myth 2: Facilitation is getting inundated with a whirlwind of ideas
Brainstorming is one way of generating ideas, which is a divergent process. It is not enough just to identify and collect ideas; a group will feel dissatisfied if left in this “groan zone” with an enormous amount of ideas or data without knowing what to do with them. An effective facilitator will help the group make sense of all the ideas, to bring the ideation process to some closure, to converge them to some meaningful purpose and/or product.
Myth 3: Facilitation is a new buzz word
Facilitation has been around since early 1980s, with roots that go back at least as far as Alex F. Osborn’s work on creative problem solving in the late 1930’s. Edgar Schein’s series of books on Process Consultation (1969) is often considered the book that popularized the concept of facilitation.
Myth 4: Facilitation is tricks and gimmicks
A facilitator’s job is to help a group achieve the outcome required in consultation with the group leader, and then deliver it. As part of the process, appropriate techniques and methods are designed and used to generate ideas, encourage discussion, shift perspectives and come to decisions that all participants in the group can support. A professional facilitator will select a method that is purposeful and meaningful in achieving a desired result.
Myth 5: Facilitation is “touchy-feely” like group therapy
In a well-designed meeting, facilitated by a professional, participants will feel engaged, involved and empowered in their work. When a group learns how to work through challenges, disagreement and diverse perspectives together, it can lead to a stronger, higher performing team. It is also more likely to have continued support in implementing the decisions made from a session in which participants were involved in making the decisions. So yes, the group may “feel” better after a well-facilitated session, but that is because the group leaves the session after having contributed to their next steps or priorities. It costs money to hire a facilitator, and hiring one is a sign that you are serious about getting useful session outcomes, willing to invest in the organization and its people, and are open to having someone unbiased and neutral to facilitate the meeting. The fact that there are thousands of trained facilitators around the world working in different industries and disciplines helping teams to improve efficiency and productivity is evidence of the acceptance of its benefits.
Myth 6: Facilitators are only involved in what happens in the meeting
Conducting a good meeting is only part of the facilitation process, where all the participants interact with the facilitator in-person. A facilitator’s job starts well before the meeting. The bulk of the work includes scoping, such as consulting with the group leader in advance of the meeting, working with the group leader to design (or tailor) the session outputs, designing the meeting processes, preparing materials, and planning appropriate interactivities to be used during the meeting. Facilitators are often asked to document the results of the session or prepare summary reports after the meetings are over.
Top six reasons why event planners should use facilitators
- Using a facilitator helps to keep the discussion on track, reduces wasted time, and makes smart use of time available to achieve the desired outcome. It also provides a forum for constructively resolving conflicts and clarifying misunderstandings within group.
- A skilled facilitator helps to improve communication within a team. Facilitated meetings encourage participation from all team members. It is well known that group members are more motivated to support decisions if they are part of the process. Increased participation within the group increases productivity. When everyone has a chance to contribute they feel like an integral part of a team.
- With increased participation, you encourage creativity within the group, letting new thoughts and ideas enter the mix to creating more far-reaching, innovative solutions.
- Employing facilitators for your meetings will yield a higher probability of achieving your goal and minimize the risk of failure on big projects.
- In addition to just meetings, facilitators can help in different types of events, such as conferences, where you can involve the audience in the learning process instead of just an information dump. It can be used in community development and engagement events to bring together various members of a community to resolve issues or reach a decision.
- Finally, it is important to recognize that facilitation is a leadership skill in all disciplines, fields and industries. It is possible for managers and leaders to draw more on their staff as resources, which contributes to overall organizational success. A facilitative leader encourages participation of all team members, models effective listening, is more open to the ideas of others and deals with conflicts and negative group dynamics more effectively.
Jenny Faucher, a veteran event planner, recently had the opportunity to take part in a fully facilitated strategy session first hand. As president of Managing Matters, an association management company that manages the International Association of Facilitators, she attended their facilitated strategic planning session.
“It was an eye opening experience watching a board conduct a strategy session in such a creative and efficient manner,” says Faucher. “We stayed on track, covered all topics, dealt with new items added in and came out not only with a comprehensive plan for the organization but with each board member on the same page about every single initiative. Our team also has clear goals and objectives. I would highly recommend engaging a certified facilitator for any strategy session or conference to achieve desired outcomes.”
If you wish to learn more about facilitation or find a Certified Professional Facilitator for your next event, visit the International Association of Facilitators website (iaf-world.org).
About the author:
Mujtaba Mirza is Account Coordinator, Managing Matters Inc., in cooperation with the International Association of Facilitators (IAF). The IAF works to grow the community of practice for all those who facilitate, establish internationally accepted professional standards, build credibility and promote the value of facilitation around the world. More information on facilitation can be found at www.iaf-world.org