Facilitation is Not a Dark Art

By Julian Griggs, IAF certified facilitator, who will be presenting Alchemy of Group Facilitation in Vancouver on Nov 20-22, 2017.

“Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.” – A.A. Milne

“Could you facilitate this meeting, please? Here’s a flipchart marker.”

For some people, this invitation marks their first adventure into the world of group facilitation. It is an invitation to leap in to an unfamiliar situation, often under the scrutiny of peers, and with little or no preparation. The scope of responsibility implied is ambiguous, although there is some expectation that the facilitator is a kind of ‘servant leader’—whatever that confusing term may mean.

‘Drop in’ facilitation of this type is uncomfortable and highly challenging, particularly for facilitation novices. This approach also reflects an assumption—that facilitation is a mysterious, mercurial role, practiced ‘on the fly’, characterized by brilliant interventions and enlightened guidance, which somehow enables a group to operate at its best.

I think that assumption is false and misleading.

There is no doubt that one of the hallmarks of seasoned facilitators is their almost “magic” ability to sense group dynamics, access intuition, and propose new approaches that enable the group to be more effective. The more important part of facilitation, however, is far more straightforward.

Effective group facilitation requires detailed preparation and planning. Much of the work needed to help a group operate actually happens before you get into the room. The advance work needed can be time consuming, even tedious, but it is also relatively well defined, with established tools and techniques for each step.

In my experience, the basic steps involved for many facilitation projects include the following:

1. Contracting.

At the very beginning there is a conversation with the ‘client,’ or the ‘boss,’ or whoever it is that is asking for help. This exchange is a vitally important opportunity to understand why facilitation support is needed, what the group is seeking to achieve, and what type of facilitation role is expected. Contract details and reporting relationships also need to be defined. The contracting step is also the place to clarify that a facilitator’s role is to enable the group to operate at its best, not to deliver a particular outcome to the client.

2. Scoping and Assessment

My favourite question at this stage is: “What is really going on here?” Answering that question means digesting background material, interviewing people, completing surveys, conducting site visits to observe groups in action, and using any other methods to gather relevant data. It is often like ‘drinking from a fire hose’ and requires patience, reflection, and critical discernment to figure out what is important and why. Ultimately, the intent of this stage is to develop a clear understanding of the situation at hand, so the facilitator is as well informed as the group participants.

3. Formulation of Objectives

This step requires that a discrete set of objectives are defined precisely, so that all group members know what they are seeking to achieve, and can recognize when their task has been completed. Objectives can be framed in many different ways, but need to speak to outcomes not processFor example, simply suggesting that a group will ‘Review the Plan’ merely suggests an activity—to re-view, or ‘look again’ at a product—and it says nothing about why that is needed, or what the broader intent of the review might be. Vague objectives lead to mixed assumptions, which result in messy discussions.

4. Process Design

The art of designing an agenda that contributes to an effective meeting is often underrated. Facilitators are not neutral about process! A core part of their role is to design and offer to the group a systematic, problem solving approach, building on the scoping and assessment, and based on their newly-acquired understanding of the situation at hand. In many circumstances, the agenda will reflect a ‘stage gate approach,’ in which each step in the problem solving needs to be introduced with the right question or prompt, tackled appropriately, and completed satisfactorily before the group moves on to the next. Process design also requires that particular discussion tools and methods be matched to the group’s needs. Sticky dot exercises, SWOT analyses, building models with lego, drawing in pairs, world café, or doing role plays might all need to be part of the facilitator’s repertoire, but the key is that these techniques be used at the right time for the right purpose. Sometimes, just letting a group have a focused conversation, prompted by a well-framed question, at a pace that allows for thoughtful reflection is all that it takes. (Perhaps counter-intuitively, it is often easier to be adaptable on your feet and respond to a group’s needs as they evolve if detailed preparation has been done in advance, rather than the opposite being true.)

5. Endorsement of Objectives and Agenda

A facilitator is a ‘guide on the side,’ not the ‘sage on the stage.’ The success of a meeting should not depend on where the facilitator decides to lead the discussion. The group as a whole needs to agree on where they are headed (objectives) and how they want to get there (agenda). If this agreement or ‘social contract’ is not secured—ideally before the meeting, but for sure at the start of the meeting—the facilitator has an ambiguous mandate.

6. Facilitation of Session

The hands-on work of facilitation involves opening the session in a manner that encourages commitment and enthusiasm, rather than triggering anxiety or detachment. Dialogue then needs to be managed, in a way that draws out creativity and engages all participants actively—depending on their learning styles, personality preferences, knowledge and competencies, and with a mind to addressing structures of power and privilege appropriately. Interventions may also be needed to address ineffective behaviours, and delivered with compassion and clarity. The needs of the group will also vary over time as things develop, and the facilitator needs to modulate the style and the intensity of their engagement to match those needs. Decisions need to be clearly delineated and confirmed. Rituals may also be needed to help groups bring their engagement to an emotionally satisfying close.

7. Evaluation

This step might typically involve a structured evaluation afterwards—on paper or online—to support the group’s on-going reflection and learning. It is also helpful for facilitators to conduct their own assessment of what went well, and what did not. Doing so before reviewing the evaluation results from the group helps facilitators calibrate their own ‘instrument of discernment.’ It can also help to overcome the tendency to be an over-harsh critic, or to respond only to criticism while failing to take note of what actually went well.

8. Follow up and Implementation

The scope of follow up activities for facilitators will vary depending on their contract. At minimum, there will be a debrief with the ‘client.’ Other follow up activities might include a debrief with the group as a whole to contribute to the building of process literacy and collaboration competencies, the preparation of a summary report, coaching for individual group members responsible for implementation, or preparing for follow up meetings or workshops.

There are numerous additional details for each of these various steps, and each facilitation project will be unique. Moreover, not all projects offer the luxury of ample preparation time, and in some instances facilitators need to compress the steps outlined above, triage for the essential tasks, and risk manage the rest.

Even under the worst-case scenario however, facilitation does not simply involve grabbing the flipchart marker and naively launching into a discussion. In fact, if that approach is adopted, the facilitator ends up taking on a great deal of the responsibility for the meeting. By doing so, the facilitator ‘takes charge,’ and can easily lead a group astray, or be perceived to be manipulative. ‘Drop in’ or other directive styles of facilitation also tend to undermine the self-reliance and relative autonomy of the group, and can create dependency, by establishing the expectation that a group can only function effectively when there is a facilitator leading the way.

At its heart, effective group facilitation is not the dark art of manipulating outcomes. It is about enabling groups to work together better so that they can solve their own problems. It is also about helping groups learn the tools and techniques to collaborate, so that facilitation support is not needed over the long term. The highest functioning groups, in fact, do not need a facilitator at all! Members of high functioning teams pool their skills and work through the steps outlined above together, sometimes in real time, or at the outset of the meeting. They are able to monitor process while simultaneously engaging on substance.

For the rest of us, working in teams or groups that have yet to reach that level of performance, a designated facilitator might be helpful. But don’t toss a flipchart marker across the room and expect miracles. Effective group facilitation demands more than that.

Join Julian in Vancouver for Alchemy of Group Facilitation on Nov 20-22, 2017

Julian GriggsIAF certified, Julian Griggs specializes in the collaborative decision making process and is a regular trainer and facilitator at Hollyhock. Over the last 22 years, Julian has designed and facilitated hundreds of multi-party planning processes, workshops, meetings, strategic planning initiatives and conferences for corporate, government, First Nations and not-for-profit sector clients in Canada, the US and abroad. dovetailconsulting.com

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One thought on “Facilitation is Not a Dark Art”

  1. Did you find this post useful? How could an awareness of these steps help you with the groups you work with? We’d like to know!

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